Flipping through Grady Hendrix’s (Horrorstör) new book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, it’s difficult to not be instantly attracted to a book described as “Heathers meets the Exorcist.” After finishing the book, it’s easy to see that like Heathers, its staying power and popularity will be anything but ephemeral.
Exploring Feminisms: I can’t think of beginning any other way besides asking you, what was the impetus for writing this book?! What was the inspiration? I found it refreshing, sweet, extremely suspenseful, fun and to say the least, an unconventional “page turner,” as we say in the library world.
Grady Hendrix: It was the title. One afternoon, the phrase, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just popped into my head and everything flowed from there. Although saying “flow” makes it sound like writing this book was a blissful, uninterrupted stream of creative inspiration. That is not accurate. Imagine a flow of lava rolling through your living room and setting your hair on fire while you run around screaming and trying to rescue your favorite possessions as they burst into flame and give you hideous burns. More that kind of flow.
EF: Throughout the entire novel, I was struck by how well you interpreted the universal aspects of the lives of most young women, such as the intensely emotional friendships and going through your parents closet and finding their porn stash. How were you able to reflect back on the intricacies of high school with such detail, and further, from the varied perspectives of different types of young women?
GH: When I’d finished half of the first draft of this book I was really, really proud of it, so I showed it to my wife. She informed me that it was full of clichés, stereotypes, and lazy assumptions. It was, to use her words, hot garbage. After I spent some time crying, I realized she was right. So much of what I thought I remembered about high school in the 80s was other people’s memories, John Hughes movies, and an infinite supply of pop culture clichés. So I sat down with all of her letters and photos from high school, and I sat down with all my letters and diaries, and yearbooks from high school and I spent weeks reading them. I copied the letters again and again until my handwriting changed. I got lost in them. And then, one day, an actual real memory of exactly what it felt like to be 15 and in high school in 1988 bubbled to the surface. And then another one. And another. And I started to write.
EF: The book takes place in an upper class high school academy in Charleston, SC. Did you grow up in the South?
GH: I grew up in Charleston, SC and went to a school that is very similar to Albemarle Academy. I also lived on Pierates Cruze. Everything else is total fiction.
EF: I was discussing the book with my spouse, who is from North Carolina, and we were continually comparing notes on how accurate your portrayal was for me, of the 1980s, and for him, the South in the 1980s. The tight gym shorts, the tv shows, the (economic) class politics, the music, et al. Can you tell me about writing for a specific time and location?
GH: It was so hard, but so much fun. I love research, and digging into a time and place I actually lived through was a blast. I’ve got a calendar for 1988 next to me on my office wall with every incident in the book mapped out, I’ve got TV schedules for every day of the week, I’ve got clippings from magazines that came out in those months (Seventeen, 16, TIME, Sports Illustrated), and I think I’ve read almost every issue of my hometown paper, The News and Courier, that came out between June and November, 1988. It makes me sound like a serial killer stalking 1988, but I love this kind deep nerdery.
EF: When Abby tries to tell the adults that her best friend Gretchen may have been sexually assaulted, resulting in the adults turning on Abby instead, I couldn’t help but absorb her feelings of incredulity and alienation. How were you able to create and express such a sense of betrayal?
GH: It’s how I felt every day I was in high school. Adults were the enemy and they could not be trusted. Even now, if someone asks me what advice I’d give a teenager, I’d tell them that teenagers shouldn’t be taking advice from anyone over 30. We all look back and we minimize our teenaged experiences, or attribute what we felt to “adolescent angst” but I look at the way my friends and I were treated by the adults we knew and I’m still angry about it. I knew girls who had awful things happen to them, and couldn’t get anyone to believe them. I knew guys who were targeted by teachers for humiliation and mockery. When you tried to get help it was dismissed as “drama.” Let’s face it, teenagers are still treated as being less than human, and it hurts.
EF: I was stuck by how easy it was for me to envision each of the characters because you really gave them all distinct, believable personalities, even if they were only in a few paragraphs. No one was made into a caricature, and though the book has been compared to the movie Heathers, all of the lines were believable within the context of an actual conversation between two people. Tell me about how you were able to construct these characters.
GH: Thanks so much for saying that. I love these characters and spent so much time with them that when bad stuff happened I felt like a jerk. I mean, anything that went wrong with their lives was actually 100% my fault. Everyone in this book started with a seed of someone I saw or someone I knew in the real world, whether it was a person I watched on the subway or someone I went to high school with. Then I wrote their biography and they grew past that seed and became someone different and fully created. Also, I felt a real responsibility to my friends from high school to make sure everyone felt real. My friends are the people who got me through that place alive and I felt like I had to write a book that was worthy of them.
EF: I loved the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab and his goofy personality. My father’s an undertaker and pretty much everyone I’ve met in the field of dealing with dead bodies has a very good sense of humor, so you hit that nail on the head. Was he modeled after someone you actually knew?
GH: Actually, he was modeled after the doctor at the Gross Anatomy Lab where my class took a tour! He was a blast! I grew up in a medical family, so I’m pretty familiar with the sort of casual goofiness people in that field have around death, like they’re whistling past the graveyard.
EF: When Gretchen begins acting strange–not showering, cut marks on her arms, becoming anti-social–it sounds like pretty angsty teenage stuff and could be interpreted as such, as opposed to her being possessed by a demon. Could one argue that her possession is an allegory for teenage angst; the divide between the teenage world of confusion, discovery and burgeoning individuality juxtaposed with the pressures that parents put on their children and the stories they tell themselves to save face in front of other adults?
GH: I hate to say anything’s an allegory because it makes me sound pretentious, but I will say that I watched friends go crazy in high school. They never got diagnosed or anything, but I watched them change so radically I didn’t recognize them anymore. Overnight, they’d go from being my close friend to being someone dangerous and scary. And I wasn’t immune. For me, 10th grade was so hard. I felt like everything I did was going wrong. I felt possessed. I’d try to do something good, and it would turn out bad. I’d be proud of doing the right thing, only to discover it was absolutely 100% the wrong thing. I felt completely out of control and, even worse, no one seemed interested in stopping me.
And, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism is told from Abby and Gretchen’s points-of-view, there’s another, equally valid, version of this story told from the POV of Gretchen’s parents. That’s a story about having a daughter who seems to be losing her mind. It’s a story about loving this kid for years and years and then overnight she becomes dirty, and loud, and angry, and, to be honest, even a little bit scary. And you don’t know what to do, and she’s hurting herself, and every time her best friend comes around she only gets worse. That’s not the story I set out to tell, but it’s another version of this book that I think is just as true as the one I wrote.
EF: What made this book a page turner for me was the high level of suspense; I had no idea what was going to happen next or how the story would end, or what was going to happen to Abby as she was constantly being put through the ringer. Can you tell me about how you were able to create this feeling and extend it throughout most of the novel?
GH: I wasn’t sure it worked, so thank you for letting me know it did! Suspense is hard because there’s a thin line between creating suspense and jerking your reader around. I had to make sure that anything I set up, paid off, and any pay offs I wanted were properly set up. That makes it sound like I had some kind of master chart, but it’s a lot more organic than that. When you’re writing a long book you get to a place where you’re so buried in it that things get weird. But there comes a point when you need something and you reach out and there it is, already waiting for you as if you knew you’d need it down the road. Good Dog Max is a great example. I had no idea why he was in the book, until all of a sudden towards the end I needed him and there he was, waiting for me.
Suspense is all about setting up unsolvable situations for your characters, and then figuring out solutions. It’s really hard because it means you have to be honest about your characters, and sometimes smarter than them, and I’m not known for being smart. Fortunately, your subconscious mind seems to be working on your side.
EF: The horror in the book is intermittent but effective. I also appreciated how you used restraint, especially in the part with the dog and the possessed character, Gretchen. It seemed to me that you chose horror that was scary but not so much that you would completely alienate your audience, which would have happened if you went into detail during that scene. I’d love to hear more about the process of devising horrific scenarios.
GH: I have a notebook that I carry around and whenever something gross, weird, or disturbing occurs, I jot it down. Whether it’s the way a guy smells on the subway, or a dead animal I see on the street, or even just an idea about people hiding behind doors and watching you through the cracks — if it makes me uncomfortable, it goes in the notebook. When it’s time to write a book I hold it up over my desk and shake it really hard and the worst stuff falls out and that’s what I use. Writing horrific scenes is both hard and easy because all you have to do is be totally and completely honest about what makes you feel sick and then relay exactly why to the reader. Like I said: it sounds easy, and it is, but you’re also exposing your own weaknesses and that doesn’t come naturally. If I’m making myself feel ill (and for two scenes in this book, I really felt sick while writing them) then I know I’m doing a good job. I’m my own best lab rat.
EF: Overall and for so many reasons, the novel was a great “complete package” of a book that I recommend to both adults and teens, though I see the appeal towards adults as especially alluring because of how you were able to reflect on the 1980s, which is great nostalgia for anyone of that era. Thanks so much, Grady!
My Best Friend’s Exorcism will be available on May 17, 2016. You can pre-order the book from Women and Children First if you live in Chicago, at Amazon.com, or of course, your local library.
You can also visit Grady’s website to see what else he’s up to.