By Anita Daher
From her home in southern Ontario, Marina Cohen bends time. She must, as she somehow finds enough of it to balance teaching, mothering, wife-ing, watching football, and writing creepy stories. Her earlier five novels were published by Vanwell Publishing and Dundurn Press, however with The Inn Between, she extends her ghostly reach across the border with US publisher Roaring Brook Press, a division of MacMillan.
The Inn Between is your new friend in middle grade school with the black nail polish and the mysterious, pale eyes. With skulls painted on her eyelids, and clothing she’s designed herself, she’s creepy and cool, but you know something others don’t: beneath that intricate exterior is a great, pulsing, loving heart.
This story is about eleven-year-old Quinn, who is travelling with her best-friend-since kindergarten, Kara, as she and her family move from Denver to Santa Monica. As they drive across the Mojave Desert, things begin to get weird. There are strange signs, an offbeat diner, and finally, “The Inn Between,” a Victorian inn in the middle of nowhere. It’s majestic, and odd… and then events take a turn towards bizarro. While Quinn races to unravel the mystery of Kara’s disappearing family, we eavesdrop on memories that eventually knit together to reveal the pain of a tragedy she’s never come to terms with.
I fell in love with this novel. It’s suspenseful and dreamlike with an emotional tug, and I flipped pages furiously knowing I was dooming myself because I did not want it to end. But oh… what an ending!
Enough! I will give away nothing more here.
I managed to catch up with Marina just after she sent off her latest manuscript to her editor. She agreed to answer a few questions by email.
You began reading Edgar Allan Poe while still in elementary school. What was it about his work that you found compelling at such a young age?
From a very young age, I delighted in reading the fantastical, the spooky, and the bizarre. In grade six or seven I bought a book called Ten Great Mysteries—an anthology of several of Poe’s works. What drew me in and left a lasting impression was the fear his settings inspired, such as the horrific chamber in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. I also loved how “The Tell-Tale Heart” left me pondering whether something supernatural had in fact occurred or whether it was all in the guilt-ridden imagination of the main character. Poe is a mind-bending master.
I love the story of how Quinn and Kara met—it has the feel of something that might have happened in real life. Did it?
I’m thrilled you feel that particular scene feels real. It actually came about quite late in the editing process. My editor, Emily Feinberg—who is brilliant at pointing out what needs to be cut or added—thought the reader needed to see the first meeting between Quinn and Kara. She felt the scene should be short and simple, yet powerful, and set the tone for their friendship, creating a bond that would last throughout their lives… and beyond… And so I came up with the colouring scene.
This is your first book with a US publisher. Canadian authors sometimes have difficulties when publishing out of country in terms of seeing distribution of their book in Canada, arranging home-town book launches, that sort of thing. How has this experience been for you?
Though my book hasn’t officially launched, my experience so far has been nothing but wonderful. Raincoast Books is distributing my novel in Canada and my publicist and I have been in touch several times. She is extremely supportive. I feel I’m in excellent hands.
Why did you choose the Mojave Desert as your setting?
Setting is so important in every novel, but I think it’s especially important in creepy books. I love cold, dark, decrepit places—I can’t get enough of old houses and ancient castles—but this time I thought I’d present readers with a setting that’s hot, and open, and intensely bright but hopefully just as unnerving. Years ago my husband and I drove through the Mojave Desert. The barren, desolate landscape and feeling of isolation were so unsettling. And then, some really weird things happened—at least weird to someone with an overactive imagination—and I thought to myself, what a great place to set a creepy story.
Okay, you can’t leave us hanging! What kind of weird things?
Ha ha! How about I explain just one? This was a long time ago and my husband and I had never heard of, let alone seen, a wind turbine. So there we are driving across a barren, rocky landscape in complete isolation with barely any vegetation let alone human life form to be seen. It really felt like we were driving on the moon. We head up a hill and as we make it over, suddenly, seemingly in the middle of nowhere we see hundreds, maybe thousands of these enormous white turbines covering the landscape as far as the eye can see. Honestly, and knowing that we aren’t far too from Area 51—my mind immediately thinks it has something to do with aliens! As I said, I have an overactive imagination. The wind turbines did make it into my story, though.
What kinds of make-believe games did you play as a kid?
I have very fond memories of my brothers and cousins and me all running around in the yard pretending to be various Batman characters enacting our own good vs. evil stories. I also had an imaginary winged horse. Since I couldn’t have a real one, I named my first cat Pegasus. My mother changed its name.
Your Twitter profile says you are a “lover of all things creepy.” The Inn Between may be creepy, but it’s also incredibly cool. Where did it come from?
Music is often a great inspiration to writers. I love songs that tell me an entire story in very few words. One of the inspirations for this novel was the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”. Such an eerie song with a haunting melody. My mind has wandered those dark-twisting corridors for years.
Have you ever read a story that was so terrifying you had to set it aside for a while, possibly until daylight and when you might be surrounded by other people?
Honestly, no. I don’t scare easily. And I’ve read many masters of horror. I will say, though, that the mere thought of some of those stories still gives me chills.
What came first in hatching this story—the Inn Between, or the tragedy in Quinn’s past?
I’m extremely lucky to have an amazing agent, John Cusick, who not only champions my work but also helps me improve it. When I submitted the first draft of this manuscript to him the tragedy in Quinn’s past was completely different. After reading the manuscript, he said he loved the main story, but felt the flashbacks were flat. He wanted them to hook readers as much as the main story. I knew almost immediately where I wanted to go, though I hesitated, as I knew it would be a dark place. John, as always, encouraged me to just go for it. Of course, Quinn’s past ended up molding and shaping her present story. Ah, but that’s the beauty of editing, isn’t it?
You and I met years ago through an online forum called KidCrit, begun by fellow author and former Winnipeg Review columnist Marsha Skrypuch. You are now many times published, but how did participating in that forum shape your development as an emerging writer?
If it weren’t for Marsha Skrypuch I would not be a published author today. At the time I connected with Marsha, I’d actually given up writing. I’d written two manuscripts that were rejected far and wide. Marsha graciously allowed me into her critique group where I was thrilled to meet great writers, such as yourself, who were willing to take the time to read my work and provide me with valuable feedback. I learned many techniques—mainly, how to “sleekify” (Marsha’s word). I also learned a lot about the business of writing. All this knowledge, along with the encouragement of the group, helped me rewrite my first manuscript and land a publishing contract. I will always be grateful.
What do you feel is the most important element in writing horror for young readers?
I don’t think writing horror for young readers is much different from writing horror for adults—except adult content, of course. Horror readers delight in being afraid. Fear is a sensory thing. Great horror writers appeal to all the senses, not just the visual, to craft suspenseful scenes that give readers the chills they crave.
A final question. Sock preference: solids or patterned?
Solid. Or patterned. But black. Almost always black.