Thursday, November 18, 2010

Spotted: Sarah Smith + The Other Side of Dark

I've spotted someone who will talk about ghosts, racism and prejudice - two of which are one of the things we rarely talk about - topics that are important to me. Earlier this month, we celebrated Halloween and today, I have a special guest whose book was released in time for that occasion - Sarah Smith, the author of The Other Side of Dark. Here is the interview:

What or who inspired you to write The Other Side of Dark?

A book never has just one beginning. Hugh Mattison, president of the Friends of Pinebank, threw the first idea in the inspiration barrel by asking me to write about Pinebank.

Another inspiration came when I realized that Pinebank’s owners were slave traders. I was talking their history over with Dorothy Clark, and something she said completely turned the book around for me. “Oh, that’s what Katie has to see and realize.”

Law runs the book, even more than Katie. Law has to fight his father. Law’s father is so convinced he is right that he thinks everyone ought to believe exactly what he does. I like Charles Randall Walker, but it would be awful to be his kid. The man is too principled even to call Law by his own name!

The African Meeting House completed the story. The African Meeting House was built by the free black Boston community, as the centerpiece of the community. Just walk in and you can feel the power of the place. That place has ghosts too, but completely different ghosts, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, the Massachusetts 54th regiment… If you’re near Boston, you have to see it.

Why write for teens?

I write for people. Many of my favorite books are YA books, but I didn’t even think of The Other Side of Dark as a YA until I’d finished it. I was writing about what happens to two people who are 16 and 15 and who are attracted to each other but too unsure about themselves to say so. When the first draft was finished, I showed it to my agent, who said, “This is YA, you know.”

“Gosh, so it is.”

Why focus on ghosts?

Ghosts are history made personal.

In The Other Side of Dark, they start out by being ghosts of one person’s history. Law’s house is haunted by his grandmother, his parents’ incompatibility, and his need to define himself as a young African-American man (not just take his father’s definition).

Haunted by her parents’ death, Katie literally lives in a haunted house—her dead father comes to see her every night while she does her homework.

George, who’s a ghost himself, still has to haunt Pinebank because of ghosts he is too obedient to see.

Law and Katie begin to see the ghosts of a bigger history, the ghosts we don’t talk about. The ghosts are all over, not just at Pinebank but in her school, in a meeting at City Hall—they’re everywhere and they haunt everybody. Mrs. Perkins’s family has been haunted by them for generations.

Ghosts aren’t just dead. They’re silenced. To see them, and listen to them, and talk about them, is a moral choice. I’m glad Katie makes the choice she does.

What is Perkins Bequest and how does this relate to The Other Side of Dark?

The Perkins Bequest is real, it is fifty million dollars, and nobody knows what happened to it.

In 1848 Thomas Handasyd Perkins was nearly 90 years old and was the richest man in America, worth $1.5 million then—about $150 million now. He wrote a will dividing his fortune. A million dollars went to his family. But half a million went to a secret fund. Five of his relatives and friends were given the job of administering it. No one else was to know how it was spent. These five were responsible to no one but each other.

So one of the largest single blocks of money in America just disappeared.
What happened to it? What was it for? What took so much money? Why did it need to be kept secret?
Perkins had given away big money before. The Perkins School for the Blind is named after him.
What was different about this?
Was it something sinister?
No one knows.

Which was the most fun to write – beginning, middle or end? Why?

It’s always wonderful to get through a book and say “This is the end, the characters and I have got through the whole story.” But this time it was a special treat to write the end.

I didn’t know exactly what would happen to Katie until I was in Pinebank with her. I’d used Walker’s story earlier in the book, but I didn’t realize until that moment what Katie had to do and how she would find out. Of course: they would tell her what they needed. She would do it for them, and then for George and herself.

Again, I’m being general so as not to spoil the scene for you.

I work in a building with a winter garden and a coffee shop. After work that day, I went downstairs to the coffee shop, fortified myself with a big mug of coffee, and began writing. I wrote down the whole scene, pretty much line for line as it is now. It was a magical moment. Tears were running down my face because people were dying, people were being saved. Friends from work came downstairs, saw me typing and sobbing, and looked a little alarmed. “It’s all right (sob) I’m OK (sob) I’m writing.”

Now that the book is out, people who are talking about the book in front of people who haven’t read it yet say “That scene,” and they know what they mean.

The other “that scene” for me is Law’s speech. He did it all himself.

Were any of the characters patterned after someone in real life?

Some of the characters actually do exist in real life. Thomas Handasyd Perkins is real, and he actually did have a relative named George Perkins, though my George is all my invention. The ghost in the Atheneum is real. (You can find out who he is at the Atheneum’s Web site.) Frederick Law Olmsted is real.

On my Website, there’s a longer list of who’s real and who’s not.

Hugh and Arlene Mattison, Dorothy Clark, Anne Lusk, John Wathne, and Margaret Dyson are all real. So is Mayor Tom Menino, so identified with Boston that the characters blame him for everything that happens.

When we had the publication party, some of them came and signed books.

Did you incorporate your own experiences in this novel?

Boston and Brookline are my cities. I was involved in trying to save Pinebank. I work within walking distance of the African Meeting House and the Atheneum. The stairs where Law accuses Katie of seeing ghosts are the ones I walk up to go to my local library.

Law and I are both old-building geeks. I go around taking pictures of stone basements and windows. Law would do that. I also had a bullying father whom I had to fight back to.
Prejudice and racism are ghosts we don’t talk about. We need to.

Katie and Law spend a lot of time in Starbucks. Most of this book was written in Starbucks, but I would never have one of Katie’s peppermint lattes. Mocha latte, yes. Peppermint? Ick. Rather have toothpaste latte.

Describe The Other Side of Dark in three words.

Ghosts, romance, mystery!

The Other Side of Dark is out now! How do you feel?

Now I get to talk to readers—this is the fun part!
All of writing is fun.

Any last words?

Not yet :)

Thanks for dropping by, Sarah!
Book Description via Goodreads:
Since losing both of her parents, fifteen-year-old Katie can see and talk to ghosts, which makes her a loner until fellow student Law sees her drawing of a historic house and together they seek a treasure rumored to be hidden there by illegal slave-traders.

Law Walker knew Katie Mullens before she was crazy. Before her mother died. Law knows Katie’s crazy now, but she’s always been talented. And she keeps filling sketch pads even though her drawings have gone a little crazy as well—dark, bloody. What Law doesn’t know is that these drawings are real. Or were real. Katie draws what she sees—and Katie sees dead people. People who have died—recently, and not so recently—in accidents, from suicide, even a boy who was trapped in a house that burned down more than 100 years ago. And it’s this boy who makes Law want to get to know Katie all over again. So what if his dad doesn’t want him dating a white girl? So what if people think Katie is dangerous? The ghost boy is hiding a secret that Law needs to know—and it’s much bigger, much more shocking than anyone ever expected.


  1. Great interview! I love ghost/romance stories.

  2. Great interview! It was very insightful. I haven't read that many books that include the theme of race in YA, so this is unique. It sounds like a really intense story. Thanks.

  3. Great interview, this book sounds much different than any other book I've seen.

  4. The piece about the ghosts is most fascinating. I wouldn't have thought of using ghosts as characters.

    Your other review is fantastic -- I read the part about the interesting ghosts three times!!!

  5. Wow I can't wait to read this book!

  6. The book sounds awesome!! Can't wait!

  7. Wow, this sounds fantastic! I love how this isn't just about literal ghosts... but the emotional type that haunt us too. It was also interesting reading about the Perkins Bequest too! Great interview!

  8. Sounds interesting! Thanks for a wonderful interview. :)

  9. Sounds like a good book! I find it interesting that it just ended up being a YA novel. I think authors write this genre because life seems to be much more complicated as a teenager!

  10. Interesting interview - the Perkins Bequest was fascinating, I've never heard of it before and it sounds so mysterious.
    Thanks for the interview, the book sounds great.

  11. "Ghosts, romance, mystery!" ~ Now, I really have to check this one out. Great interview, by the way. :')

  12. Sounds fascinating! Off to put on my wishlist.


    alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com

  13. Great interview! I loved the questions you asked - very comprehensive. ♥ And I love how she describes her book, hah. I'm terrified of books with ghosts in them, but I definitely want to check this one out. :P

  14. So it's story about ghost. Recently, I seldom read book about it.I hope I'll find the excerpt

  15. Great interview. Sounds interesting.

  16. Great interview. Sounds really good.

  17. I think it's cute how you have mixed your own experiences in with this book. The part about Starbucks cracked me because it was so normal compared to everything else about this book! you can bet I will read it !!!

  18. Aaaah Starbucks... Heaven on Earth ;p I like that Sarah put parts of herself in this story... It makes it ... not more real... but ... definitely "more" ... (ugh, I haate when I don't find my words!!)

  19. Ghosts, romance, mystery! I def. want to read this, nice interview.

  20. Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments! Me and Sarah really appreciate your words! :)