Gretchen McNeil is not only an incredibly talented author, she’s also a professionally trained opera singer, a natural performer, and one of the nicest people we’ve ever met.
The hit YA author is probably best known for her book Ten, which won numerous awards before being turned into a Lifetime original movie. Then, just to cement her place in our hearts as the reigning queen of YA horror, she came out with with the two book Don’t Get Mad series, with Get Even being released in 2014, and the follow-up Get Dirty in 2015. Now, she’s back with a new YA horror novel, #MurderTrending. But this one’s doing something new, which is showcasing McNeil’s natural affinity for comedy. While we all know that comedy and horror together can go very, very wrong, McNeil’s right on the mark the whole time, bringing humor to even the most gruesome of scenes.
When a former reality star is elected President, an anonymous TV mogul called The Postman sold the government on the idea of execution-as-entertainment. Now, there’s Alcatraz 2.0, where the most dangerous criminals are put and hunted down by psychotic government serial killers, each with their own theme of killing. The prisoners have apartments, and even jobs, but are always on their guard, waiting for the inevitable attack. All this is being livestreamed to the rest of America 24/7, so they not only know what’s in wait for them if they break the law, but to also keep them glued to their screens. The Postman’s killers are faceless celebrities, with adoring fans, internet fandoms, and more.
When 17-year-old Dee Guerrera wakes up in a warehouse, she knows exactly where she is. Wrongly convicted of murdering her step-sister, Dee’s been sentenced to Alcatraz 2.0, where she’ll become the next victim of the app. Refusing to die for a crime she didn’t commit, Dee resolves to fight back, alongside several other prisoners, becoming a “Death Row Breakfast Club” of sorts. But not everything going on is what it seems.
We got to chat with Gretchen McNeil about how the inspiration for the book first came along, walking that tricky balance of horror and comedy, and how social media has shaped a generation.
BookTrib: I loved this book – I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did! It was so wonderfully unique, not just in characters but also the story line. Where did the idea for this book first come from?
Gretchen McNeil: I was talking with an editor at Freeform who I’ve known for a long time, and what she loved about my writing was the darkness – the horror aspect – mixed with comedy. It’s not as pronounced in books like Ten, but in my Get Even and Get Dirty series there’s a lot of humor, and a lot of scares. It’s a sweet spot for me, I think, and Karen my editor did too. So it just came from discussing where that genre might go. We were talking about things like Scream Queens on Fox, which really has an excellent balance of those two things, and then we were discussing our favorites in the genre, and I brought up The Running Man, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film based on Stephen King’s novel about televised executions, and it felt very present in our current social media climate, instead of what the original, far-future conception was.
The idea was sort of formed through that, and the book sold to Disney’s FreeForm on Halloween, ironically enough. A week later though, the 2016 election happened and from that, was born this idea of a president who came from a reality television background, sort of changing the criminal justice system to dope the masses, in a way. Those were the pieces that weren’t part of the original book pitch, but I couldn’t ignore what’s currently happening, especially in a book that’s only set five minutes in the future. This is not The Hunger Games, this is not the far, distant future. This is set tomorrow, or a month from now. So, all those parts came together to form this crazy but also relevant comedy-horror novel.
BookTrib: So, this is fiction, it is horror-comedy, but it’s also this great commentary on social media, and how it’s just taken over our lives. Why was this something that you wanted to focus on?
GM: I joined Twitter back in the halcyon days of 2008 or something like that, and in a way, twitter was a different place. It wasn’t as populated, and it felt very much like a place where authors – and artists in other genres, too, actors and musicians – and readers could interact with each other. One of the things in my own childhood and teen years, in thinking about authors, is that authors always seemed like these Salinger-esque figures who lived on mountaintops who you never saw. But it moves the art and the consumer closer together, and it was wonderful.
There are still amazing things about social media, and Twitter in particular, with the idea that everyone has a voice, and news that may not be covered by a major outlet can find a foothold and a voice on social media. There is somebody covering the horrors that happen throughout our world at all times, so nothing can go unchecked in a way, and that is wonderful. But the downside is that twitter has become a place of people lecturing or yelling at each other, as opposed to having conversations, and it’s a darker place now, to me at least, than it was 10 years ago. I still recognize the importance of having social media, but it has definitely lost some of the fun and charm.
The evolution has been amazing, where 10 years ago if you talked about tweeting, people thought you were bird watching, or something like that. The concept of a tweet, of a snap – they didn’t exist 10 years ago, and now they’re so much a part of everyday life that we have a President who uses it to enact personal vendettas and policy. It’s completely taken over our consciousness, and, unfortunately, also truncated the way that we view news, which is now 280 characters at a time. But that’s not an article, it’s not an exposé. Reading a thread on twitter is not the same as sitting down and doing research, and reading an article that’s been well thought out and researched. This all worries me, and that’s what came into this book, the idea that it’s all about a soundbite, it’s all about a hashtag, and how many likes you get. I tried to make it ludicrous and over the top to illustrate a point, but I think when people read the book, they’ll see the kernels of truth in the text, and hopefully give a moment of pause.
BookTrib: Going back to the genre blending for a moment, comedy and horror together can go really, seriously wrong, but you wrote it so well. Is this something that you find comes easy to you? What do you think is the key to bringing two genres together that might not click?
GM: Comedy comes naturally to me, it always has. I was your class clown in middle school, and I’ve spent most of my life performing – I was a dancer as a child, in musical theater in high school; I have a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, and a master’s in music and opera performance. I’ve spent my entire life performing on stage, so I’m very comfortable with that kind of extroversion. I’ve also spent a lot of time gauging what works in comedy on stage -which is completely different than writing, of course. But comedy is hard, and it’s so difficult because it’s so subjective. What I think is funny may not appeal to everyone, but I have a good sense of voice for this genre, and what comedy is for this age group. In that regard, I didn’t have to work overly hard at the comedy portion.
The horror aspect is a different story. I’ve been blessed with some excellent editors on some of my previous work that has less comedy, like my debut some previous books, books that have less comedy like my debut Possess, or Ten. There are little jokes in there, one liners, but it’s much more about tone and tension building up to the point that the scary things are so tense that they actually land as being scary. That was definitely learned. People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you scare yourself when you write these things?” And the answer is no, not at all. Because I’m looking at it like an architect, I’m building a blueprint for certain moments that I want to land in a certain way, and I’m creating that structure to build up to it. So in that way, you’re the puppeteer; you’re not seeing the finished product, only the mechanisms.
BookTrib: The characters that you have throughout the book – from Dee, who ends up joining this Death Row Breakfast Club with Ethan, Mara, Niles, and the others. How did these characters come to you? Did they change through the book how you expected them to?
GM: It’s kind of a grab bag, actually. Dee develops very much how I envisioned, which was someone who comes from a place of weakness and vulnerability to a place of strength. She’s been victimized in her life, and yet in order to save people she cares about, she has to figure out a way to keep everyone alive. Niles ended up being slightly more kind of supercilious than I originally envisioned. I kind of wanted him as the swaggery, hot boy, but he came out more nerdy, and I think more lovable because of that.
Ethan was the one that changed the most, I think. I knew he was going to be kind of my jock character. I don’t like describing certain characters as being less intelligent than others, because I think Ethan is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have as much traditional education as some of my other characters, and I always love playing with that dynamic: Niles, who was probably Eton educated, and was at Stanford, while Ethan is a personal trainer. When I realized that his love for action movies had to be a central part of his character, he really came alive for me. I compiled a list of quotes from the best action movies of all time, and peppered them in for him, and suddenly his character just became my favorite. I think when you read the Ethan scenes, you can tell how much I love him.
Griselda was kind of the angry mean girl, but who also has something deeper underneath. In the beginning, they’re all posturing, they’re all stuck on this place where they could die at any minute, and you only slowly reveal their characters as they get to know each other, and of course trust each other.I think they all developed in ways I didn’t expect, but that’s where the editorial process comes in. When you put a bunch of different characters in a room together and let them talk, their development and their relationships come out in ways you don’t expect, which is exactly what happened in this scenario.
BookTrib: Then you have The Postman’s killers. Just from the names along – I mean, you have The Hardy Girls, Barbaric Barista, Cecil B. DeViolent. How did you come up with have themed serial killers? How did you decide what themes they would have?
GM: I knew we were going to do ten killers straight off. Originally, I had a slightly different line up, and then as the plot developed and I needed to use certain serial killers in certain types of scenes, I would end up saying, “That doesn’t work. What else could we do?” For example, Cecil B. DeViolet, who recreates scenes from famous movies to kill his victims, didn’t exist in the original conception of the book. But once I had Ethan so immersed in film-action, I wanted to have the serial killer counterpart to that. With the others, it was just about diversifying: I had to have someone who used animals to kill, and I wanted to have a duo, a sister act.
I also wanted to have some that were more sedentary, and some that were ludicrous, like DIY Nona. I literally sat with my husband one day and said, “What is a career or job for someone that would be the least likely to be a serial killer?” So we came up with this list of jobs, like Kindergarten teacher, and social worker, and then someone who works at a Michael’s craft store, and I thought that was brilliant, because then we could do someone who would use all the craft materials in horrific ways, which was completely ridiculous. When you have something so silly that you think it can’t possibly work, for me that’s when I know I’m on the right track.
BookTrib: Is there anything that you want readers to know about the novel, or to take away from it?
GM: I think with this book, I’ve been a little nervous because it is so over the top, and it’s touching on some current events that are a little explosive right now. But I’m hoping that people can see the social commentary of it, without feeling that they’re being preached at, because I don’t want to preach to people. I don’t think that this is the place for that, but I do hope that it makes people laugh and cringe, and also think a little bit. Because that really is the point of social satire.
BookTrib: Now, I know that the book hasn’t even come out yet, but you end on this mindblowing cliffhanger…
GM: There is a sequel! We just announced it, and I’m finishing up the editorial right now. It’s called #MurderFunding, and it actually follows a different main character. I’m trying not to give away what happens in the first book, but this follows a different story line, having to do with a girl whose dead mother may or may not have been an Alcatraz 2.0 execution. So she goes on a quest to find out, in the aftermath of everything that happened in the first book. If #MurderTrending is a ten on the crazy scale, then #MurderFunding is a twelve. It really was a wild ride, and I hope the fans enjoy it as much as they do the first one!
#MurderTrending will be available for purchase on August 7th.
ABOUT GRETCHEN MCNEIL
Gretchen McNeil is the author of I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Don’t Get Mad duology, as well as the YA horror novels Possess, 3:59, Relic, and Ten, which was a 2013 YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and was adapted as the Lifetime original movie Ten: Murder Island in 2017. Visit www.gretchenmcneil.com for more.