If you’re areader who enjoys feeling a shiver down your spine — even in the bright summer heat next to a chlorinated pool — something spooky is heading your way. “Our Crooked Hearts,” the latest release from Brooklyn-based writer Melissa Albert, is a contemporary, atmospheric journey, flush with in-ground pools, enchanted golden boxes, and deadly spells.
Albert, a former bookseller and YA literary blogger for Barnes & Noble, is the New York Times best-selling author of The Hazel Wood series — ”The Hazel Wood,” “The Night Country,” and “Tales from the Hinterland” —fantastical stories set in the liminal space of a modern reality infused with intrusions from fairy tales.
Her new novel, out on Tuesday, takes place in the Chicago suburbs and city, spanning time periods between 17-year-old Ivy’s summer break, and her mother Dana’s secret occult past involving dark, otherworldly forces that may or may not want vengeance on her daughter in the present-day.
On Wednesday, Albert will be visiting An Unlikely Story bookstore in Plainville for a signing and conversation with New England-based author Julie C. Dao (“Forest of a Thousand Lanterns,” “Team Chu and the Battle of Blackwood Arena”). As Albert gears up for her book tour, we caught up over Zoom for a chat about her work.
Q. I stayed up finishing your book last night and I definitely didn’t sleep well, but I think that’s a compliment to you.
A. Sleep — who needs that right now?
Q. But seriously, the book really moves. Do you have the action plotted before you start writing?
A. I have a little bit of an idea of where it’s going, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there. The metaphor that I use is the headlights method. You can kind of see one scene ahead, so you’re always kind of writing into the next scene that you can see.
Q. There’s a thread dealing with memory as both a gift and a curse. Did you know you wanted to focus on that?
A. I like to explore things through the lens of the speculative, but it’s always an organic outgrowth of storytelling: a narrative I want to tell, and then I look back and can see what it actually touches on, outside of the plot itself. I wrote this one during the pandemic. I’m a parent to a small child. He was 2½ when the pandemic began, and I was thinking about the ways you can fail your children — writing fantasy gave me some really interesting ways to explore that.
Q. What books were you reading when you wrote it?
A. My pandemic reading diet was genre fiction — mysteries and horror and high fantasy. I couldn’t click with anything that wasn’t heavily page-turning. I think this book was written kind of in homage to that. I read “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novic, Emily Henry’s “Beach Read,” Agatha Christie; I reread “The Westing Game” [by Ellen Raskin] and “Spinning Silver” [by Naomi Novic] — anything super page-turning.
Q. I loved the suburban setting. Was that inspired by where you grew up?
A. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I wanted to write and make a suburban setting for Ivy’s story that was as specific and coded as what you see in urban fantasy with cities.
Q. And then you also have the city, told through Dana’s story.
A. I got so drawn into Dana, the mother’s story — which I’d originally perceived as the backstory. It turned into half the book. I hadn’t intended to write anything set in Chicago in the ‘90s, but getting to do it was so fun. I set it in East Arches Park, which is where my dad grew up.
Q. What’s so attractive to you about the space you write in — mixing contemporary reality with magical elements?
A. When I’m writing, I’m drawn again and again to the idea of the world slightly tilted. The world as we know it, but with portals, or thin places — magic threading through. I like that atmosphere of dread and possibility. As a kid, everything I read and connected with the most was about kids finding their ways into other worlds. That’s not an original thing to say — I think a lot of writers start that way. But for me, it lived on in this very literal way. I never let go of the idea of magic bleeding into the real world.
Q. I love the fierceness and complexity of the female characters in your books.
A. In “The Hazel Wood,” the main character’s ferocious nature is initially meant to be a bit alienating to readers, and then there’s kind of a reveal for it at the end, and the reveal is magical in nature. For this book, I wanted to build it more organically. The women in this book — their fierceness and the anger that drives them is very human in origin.
Q. I find it extremely satisfying to read female characters like that.
A. There’s this kind of advancing, wonderful understanding of the wholeness of female characters that I’ve been able to watch happen in real time because I’ve been so entrenched in YA for so long. It’s this march towards full humanity as simply a given. Not like every book has to try to convince you these girls are human — it’s like, they’re human. And people who are paying attention know this.
Q. It’s cool to imagine young people folding these books into their understanding of themselves.
A. YA is always kind of that front edge of acceptance, too, and I love that about writing in this space. The readers are just so smart and they’re young enough, hungry enough, and engaged enough to kind of take on whatever kind of character you give them.
Interview was edited and condensed. Gina Tomaine can be reached at Gina.Tomaine@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @gtomaine.
Melissa Albert and “Our Crooked Hearts,” June 29 at 7 p.m., An Unlikely Story, 111 South St., Plainville, Free, anunlikelystory.com/event