Q: In The Dollhouse's acknowledgments, you note that that part of the inspiration for the book came from a visit your father made to a friend's Georgian house. How did that contribute to your writing this book, and how did you create your character Alice?
A: A few years ago, my father told me he had visited an old friend who had moved into a lovely Georgian house with a very steep, scary staircase. I love old houses, so immediately I wanted to see it. I met the elderly woman who lived there and she and I became friends. I fell in love with the house immediately, scary staircase and all.
Right away I started making up stories in my head about a girl who came to live in this house with her mother, who was working for the owner. My friend had a dollhouse in her bedroom and she and I would play with it when I visited sometimes. The dollhouse and the larger house almost haunted me… I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Eventually I saw the attic, which had another scary staircase, this one hidden in a closet. The attic was shadowy and mysterious, and at that point the story started coming together. It was wonderful to have the entire house as my inspiration, because whenever I go there, I feel as though I’m half inside my book.
Alice came very early in the process--she came along with the house, the first few visits I had there. She is a very curious girl with a dangerous imagination. Dangerous because sometimes she can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagined.
When my daughter was young, her imagination would often take her to scary places, and this, and my own sometimes out-of-control imagination were the inspirations for Alice’s flights of fancy. Alice is also very observant and thoughtful, as well as determined and courageous. Like many of my characters, she just kind of walked into my head, fully formed.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I had a vague idea of how the central mystery would resolve itself. I knew what had to happen but I didn’t know how. I’m not an author who can do an outline and then write the book. I take it chapter by chapter, relying on instinct as to what happens next and how it all connects.
However, this approach is difficult, because I can get sidetracked and find myself writing a few chapters that I have to discard, because my characters just took me on a little detour that doesn’t carry the plot where I want it to go.
I did a lot of puzzling over the plot and how to make it fit, and I wrote several drafts. I also work with a really good editor, Samantha Swenson at Tundra Books, who identifies the inconsistencies and helps me smooth out the bumpy parts.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says about two of your characters, "Both Lily and Bubble are developmentally delayed; they are described respectfully and are fleshed-out characters." You note in the acknowledgments that they were inspired by a young woman you know. How did your meeting her lead to the creation of Lily and Bubble?
A: The characters of Bubble and Lily were inspired by a girl I met at my father’s church. I first noticed her in the choir: she was about 16 and had a very pretty, open face, and she was always beaming, as if she had a light inside her.
I got to know her and like her, and I learned that she had a developmental delay that meant she would always relate to the world as if she was about 6. I was so drawn to her bright energy and her outgoing, friendly personality that I wanted to put her in a book.
I was beginning to get the idea for The Dollhouse at about this time, so I interviewed her and her family and did some research. Her mother helped me by reviewing my first draft and giving me advice on what was authentic and what needed work.
This girl is very excited about having a book dedicated to her. She shares the dedication with the owner of the Georgian house that inspired Blackwood House.
Q: What do you think the novel says about ghosts?
A: This is an interesting question! It’s got me thinking. There is a tension throughout the novel as to who is a ghost, and the answer could almost be, “everyone,” and we could get into a philosophical discussion about the nature of reality.
One of the characters is seeking out the ghosts of their past, the people they loved who are dead, but they are also haunted by a younger self whom they abandoned years before. So the ghosts have a psychological resonance.
I suppose you might say that ghosts can be memories as well as people that do not rest easy. In my book these memories are embodied as “ghosts.” I am using the ghosts in The Dollhouse to explore how people deal with pain and how time does not necessarily heal all wounds.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another mysterious story where there are ghosts and tragedy and young girls trying to find their place in the world. This one is set in a bird-watching camp in a wilderness park and it is very loosely inspired by the Grimm’s fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. The working title is The Mystery of the Haunted Dance Hall.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Virtual Visits: I do virtual school visits that involve readings from my books, ghost stories, and class discussion. I also do virtual visits to book clubs. You can write to me at email@example.com for more information.
Discussion Guide: Tundra Books and I have prepared a discussion guide for book clubs and classrooms that is available here: https://tundrabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Dollhouse_discussion-guide.pdf
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Charis Cotter.