The Telling’s Alexandra Sirowy on Walking the Line Between Real and Imagined

Alexandra Sirowy

Last year Alexandra Sirowy made her debut with eerie thriller The Creeping. It blurred the line between supernatural and very human terrors with the story of a girl haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a childhood friend, and her own unresolved memories of the incident. Sirowy walks that same tantalizing line with sophomore novel The Telling, which again occupies a mysterious space that may or may not be paranormal.

Months after the bizarre death of her beloved stepbrother, Ben, Lana is burying her grief in a new clique and a new crush. Then, a day at the local spring turns dark when Lana and friends find the body of Ben’s ex-girlfriend, becoming suspects in a case with probable links to Ben’s death. As eerie incidents pile up and more lives are lost, Lana susses out links between the mounting mystery and the rich relationship she shared with her stepbrother. She starts to wonder if what’s happening has supernatural origins, and whether Ben is truly gone after all. Here’s Sirowy to discuss working in the liminal space between real and un.

In my second YA thriller, The Telling, out today, protagonist Lana and her stepbrother, Ben, grow up on a privileged and savagely beautiful island in the Puget Sound. It’s the kind of place where the impossible seems possible, and so their childhoods are full of adventure, make-believe, and dark fairytales. No matter the plot or the villain, Lana and Ben cast themselves as heroes, vanquishing monster and man. This is before. The Telling begins with after, following 17-year-old Lana’s witnessing the mysterious killing of Ben. As other crimes, bearing echoes of her childhood fairytales, stack up on Gant Island, Lana hunts a killer and protects her friends by becoming the hero of her imagination.

In my first YA thriller, The Creeping, released last summer, protagonist Stella is haunted by the disappearance of her childhood best friend when they were six, picking strawberries in the woods. When another little girl is found dead 11 years later, one with eerie similarities to six-year-old Jeanie, Stella sets out to solve the cases. She uncovers small-town secrets, recovered memories, and folklore about an ancient evil residing in the woods.

The Creeping and The Telling, despite being similar in title, aren’t two volumes in a series but separate standalone thrillers. And yet, they do share a common theme. Among the many questions my protagonists answer, both girls struggle with what to believe: Is their villain flesh and blood or less than human? That both of these books straddle the line between what’s real and what’s imagined began as an accident and ended as a challenge to myself.

I like things that don’t quite fit. Maybe because I don’t quite fit? Regardless, I’m always most taken with books that defy genres. And so when I sat down to write my first novel, I wasn’t preoccupied with making the book fit into one genre. A romance developed on the pages, friendships were tried and tested, clues were followed, and evils were braved. I was determined to follow the story wherever it wanted to go and that happened to be straddling the line between what’s real and what’s imagined.

When I was halfway through drafting The Telling, I realized where the plot was headed and that yet again I was doing cartwheels down the line separating a contemporary thriller and a paranormal mystery. I had additional questions about the nature of good and evil (and everything in between) that I hadn’t explored in my first book. I wanted to challenge Lana and all she loved and believed in by putting her in a situation in which she could truly become a hero—at a price. And watching all of this play out on the fictional island I’d created, a place as eerie as it is beautiful, as feral as it is privileged, was so darn interesting and unique from the way similar themes played out in the town of my first book.

When I was a kid, my life was rife with dark magic. I avoided the abandoned house at the end of the street because it was haunted; sleepovers made me anxious because there were always girls gazing into a mirror to call forth Bloody Mary; the woods behind my elementary school swallowed whole any child who dared enter; and my faith in tarot cards was absolute.

But I grew up—we all do, unfortunately. Kids grow older and learn that monsters don’t inhabit closets; no specter will grab your hand if you hang it from the bed; and the snapping of twigs just beyond the tree line is probably just a squirrel. Probably.

We know these things as facts, and yet, there exists an inkling of doubt. This doubt leads you to check under your bed and causes the chill down your spine, even when you know better. I call it the primal itch; an instinct similar to fight or flight. It’s a part of our human DNA; a remnant of when we lived in caves and told stories around fires and hadn’t searched every shadowy corner of forest and jungle—before science and technology assured us we are the most fearsome monsters on earth.

As a writer of thrillers, I love to tease and explore the primal itch and to tempt readers to forget what they know is fact and fiction. I love to challenge my protagonists’ beliefs about good and evil, and I love to beg the question: Which are more frightening, monsters or people acting monstrously?

Shop all Books for Teens >

Follow B&N Teen Blog