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One month turns into horror story for former Iowa City playwright Jennifer Fawcett, author of ‘Beneath the Stairs’
Apr. 1, 2022 7:15 am
When Jennifer Fawcett garnered her MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop in 2008, the native of rural Eastern Ontario, Canada, found herself at loose ends. A suggestion from a friend got her started on a book project — a project that would eventually become her debut (and quite scary) novel “Beneath the Stairs.”
“I started it in a period of unemployment and immigration limbo,” Fawcett said in a phone interview. A friend suggested that she try NaNoWriMo — an annual event in which writers pen 50,000 words over the course of November — and Fawcett couldn’t think of a reason not to give it a go.
“I really had no excuse because I was broke, living in Iowa City, with no ability to work because of my immigration limbo. So all I had was time.”
NaNoWriMo emphasizes quantity over quality, and Fawcett said she found that helpful.
“For me, at least, I’m very quick to say, ‘Oh, that’s not good; Oh, that’s not good; Oh, that’s not good,’ and sort of stop myself. Whereas with this, it doesn’t matter. It’s just ‘keep going, keep going, keep going.’”
Soon enough, however, her immigration status was sorted out, and Fawcett became busy. Fawcett was the co-artistic director of Working Group Theatre that created and staged many original plays — including Fawcett’s work. Her plays include “Birth Witches,” and “Apples in Winter.” She now lives in New York. The novel she had begun during NaNoWriMo occasionally bubbled back to top of mind, but it didn’t remain there until much more recently.
“It’s been a really long process, so it’s nice to finally be at this stage,” Fawcett said. “For many, many years it was just that thing, like, ‘Are you still working on that thing?’”
“That thing” is a horror novel in which Clare, a woman whose marriage has fallen apart after a personal tragedy, returns to her hometown to try to help her childhood friend Abby. Abby has returned to a house that the girls visited when they were teenagers — a house that may very well be haunted — and is hospitalized after a traumatic experience. To help Abby — and another teenager who finds herself drawn to the mysterious house — Clare tries to get to the bottom of what, if anything, lurks in the basement of the long abandoned structure.
The germ of the story is grounded in Fawcett’s own memories.
“The part about four girls who are like 13- or 14-years-old going into a haunted house, that’s based on my experience. I did that. But nothing happened. I just went in, was there for five minutes, got totally freaked out, and left.” She finished with a chuckle, “And then two decades later, I wrote a book about it.”
The other bit of inspiration was no laughing matter.
“A childhood friend of mine — actually, she had gone to that house with me — had committed suicide.”
Fawcett and her friend had been in and out of touch over the years as the friend struggled with mental illness, including borderline personality disorder, which negatively affects how a sufferer thinks and feels about other individuals and about themselves.
“I had a very complicated response to her suicide,” Fawcett said. “Not just sadness, but anger and shame and all sorts of other stuff. So I guess that was still sort of swirling around in my head. So Abby became very much modeled on the real person.”
In early drafts of the novel, Abby died by suicide as well. In the end, however, Fawcett made a change.
“I wanted it to be more hopeful. And I felt like the possibility of Abby actually being able to come out of this helped to give more impetus to Clare to face her own ghosts,” she said.
She noted that it can be very challenging to convince yourself to do something hard if it is only for you, but that doing that hard thing often becomes possible when you do it for someone else.
Throughout the novel, Fawcett performs an impressive high-wire act, leaving in play the possibility that there is something horrific beneath the stairs as well as the possibility that there is not.
“I was really interested in this question of where does fear live. Could it be that there is actually something evil in this house or are they bringing it in with them?” She cites her own readiness to be scared when she visited a haunted a house and how that sense of expectation probably contributed to her sense that there really was something to be afraid of in that house.
Fawcett herself is comfortable with ambiguity, but found that too much uncertainty made the book more difficult to sell to a publishing house.
“There is this expectation that after all of this build up there has to be a monster. There has to be something there,” she said.
Maybe so. But Fawcett manages not to succumb to the allure of an easy answer about what Abby and Clare are struggling against.
“I guess I kind of settled on this idea of what if you don’t believe in ghosts and you see a ghost? What does that do? That’s where I landed with Clare. She does not believe in ghosts and she has reasons why, and then she sees one and so she has to reconcile. This idea of the double sense — that your experience and my experience, maybe they’re both right. Maybe they’re both true … It was really finding an ending that felt organic to the story I was telling and honest to my own interests, but was also going to be satisfying for a reader,” Fawcett said.
Given her years as a playwright and her new status as a novelist, I wondered how Fawcett thinks of herself.
“I think of myself more as just a writer … I definitely am going to be writing more novels, and I would like to write more plays, and I want to write essays. I just like writing … It’s so cool to try different forms,” she said.
She noted the differences between the forms — how, for example, novels allow for the exploration of a character and a play allows actors and audience to share time and space — before summing up: “Each form has something to teach you.”
Her next book is inspired by a true story — a story she has already written a play about and now wants to explore in the form of a novel. The story centers on a young couple who are picked up by a trucker after their car breaks down. Tragedy follows.
The story — much like the story of Abby and Clare — affords Fawcett the opportunity to explore an idea that has long fascinated her.
“A bad thing happens — some horrendous act of violence — and it seems random and is random. But it’s a very human need to trace it back and figure out, OK, where did this start? … Where was the initial decision made? Where did I go wrong? Where did I make the wrong step? Even though you can’t change it. We can only go forward, but we spend a lot of time looking backward.”
That may well be true, but readers who enjoy Fawcett’s impressive first novel will find themselves looking forward to her next with great anticipation.