Though she learned to speak English from watching Scooby-Doo, there’s nothing cartoony about the scary writings of Ania Ahlborn. With her new book, Within These Walls (paperback, digital) hitting stories, I spoke to her about what inspired different aspects of this novel.
I always like to start at the beginning: What is Within These Walls about?
It’s actually hard to describe what this book is truly about in less than a few hundred words, there are two main story arcs that are hopelessly entangled, but I’ll give it my best shot. The first is about a girl who ends up involved with a group of wanderers, headed by a mysteriously alluring man named Jeffrey Halcomb. The second is a story about Lucas Graham, a true crime writer, who moves into a house that’s the scene of a cult murder/suicide from thirty years prior. So, it’s about cults and death and haunted houses and manipulation. All fun topics.
Where did the original idea for it come from? And how different is the final book from that original idea?
I’ve always been intrigued by cults and why someone would get involved in that sort of a group. And while a lot of people would like to shrug that off as someone just being a crackpot, I don’t believe that. I think that people who join these sorts of groups do so unwittingly. They give in to the artfulness of these cult leaders, these master manipulators, because they’re looking to fill some void in their lives. My books are all very character driven, so exploring that concept was really intriguing to me.
As far as how the book is different from the original idea, an idea is really all I started with. All I knew was that I was going to have this creepy group of people, and a girl who didn’t know what she was getting into; and, on the flip side, a writer following the story of this poor girl’s demise.
Seanan McGuire said in The New York Times that Within These Walls is “cruel.” Seems like a weird thing to say. Do you think she’s right?
“Cruel” is a compliment when it comes to a book like this. I don’t approach horror from the angle of it being a fun but meaningless genre. It can be, for sure. But I see horror is an unflinching reflection of what it means to be human. My work is cruel in general. I don’t pull any punches. Bad things happen to good people in day to day life, and I absolutely echo that reality back to the reader in my books.
As you said, Lucas Graham is a washed-up writer of true crime books. Did you model him after anyone specific? Or imagine that his books were like some true crime books you’ve read?
I didn’t really model Lucas after anyone. All I knew was that I wanted him to explore the cult part of the story from a creative perspective rather than, say, turning him into a police investigator. I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals, so I tend to stay away from that type of a story.
As far as books…I’ve read quiet a few true crime novels for research over the years. I guess the one that comes to mind as far as Lucas goes is The Most Dangerous Animal Of All by Gary L. Stewart. In his book, Stewart recalls how he discovered that his father was the Zodiac Killer. Within These Walls shares a bit of that same discovery vibe, the “oh my god, this can’t be real” feel throughout the narrative.
Why did you decide to make Graham a true crime writer, as opposed to a poet or a self-help author?
Because that wouldn’t have made any sense.
What about someone who writers thrilling horror novels, and maybe has a name that makes her sound like she should be a character in a fantasy novel?
What about that someone? What of it? Wanna fight?
Not really. I haven’t been in a fight since the Carter administration. But going back to questions about the characters in Within These Walls, there’s also death row inmate named Jeffrey Halcomb. In deciding how the prison would work and how Halcomb would behave, did you research this or base it more on fictional depictions of death row and its residents?
Ugh, this was a real issue for me. When I first started writing, I actually contacted a few prison systems in the hope of finding someone to talk to. But, go figure, nobody wanted to help. I knew I didn’t want to just make it up.
Full disclosure here? I’ve never set foot in a prison, unless we’re talking Eastern State Penn, which is abandoned and haunted and incredibly amazing in how creepy it is. So I watched a ton of death row documentaries and I took a lot of notes, and I ended up tailoring the details to what suited my needs best.
How much did your research change how you depicted the prison and Halcomb?
I wanted Lambert Correctional to reflect what you’d find in real life, but Lambert is also a fictional place, so I didn’t feel like I had to be completely locked in to one specific set of rules.
You were born in Poland. Do you think there’s anything particularly Polish about your writing?
I don’t know of anything that’s “particularly Polish” other than pieorgi. There are no pierogi in this book, but you can find a decent recipe online.
So who would you say have been the biggest influences on how you write, and also what you write about?
I’m a child of darkness. I grew up next to a cemetery and I learned how to speak English from the likes of Scooby Doo. Nearly every fond memory I have of my childhood involves something spooky, be it Halloween or horror movies on TV or whatever. Do I read horror? Sure. But I also read a lot of genres beyond horror as well. My biggest influence is the fact that this is who I am. This stuff runs through my veins.
One of your earlier novels, Seed, is currently being made into a movie. Has there been similar interest in Within These Walls?
Actually, yes. We’re in talks for movie rights. We’ll see what comes of it.
Finally, Within These Walls is not your first book. If someone really enjoyed it, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?
There’s no order to my books, so whenever I get this question I shrug and ask what the person is into. Demons? Serial killers? Monsters? Haunted houses? Because I’ve got them all. They’re all different, but hopefully all equally enjoyable. Readers are smart. They know what they like. They don’t need me to pick and choose their next book. I’m just honored that someone would like me enough to read me more than once.