Marianna Baer received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a BA in art from Oberlin College. She also attended boarding school, where she lived in a tiny dorm called Frost House, the inspiration for her first novel, Frost. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I noticed in your bio that you once lived in a dorm named Frost House. Were there any strange happenings like the events in Frost? How did the idea to use it as the setting for a thriller begin to develop in your mind?
Physically, the real Frost House was almost exactly like it’s described in the book -- the quintessential haunted New England house. But probably the creepiest thing that happened when I lived there was when I found a bag of Doritos that had been full the night before was now mysteriously empty. :) The idea to set a story there came more from the intensity of the social situation – several 17-year old girls living pretty much on their own. No going home at night to escape whatever drama is going on. Since I’d experienced it, I knew it held great possibilities.
Celeste and David’s father has schizoaffective disorder, and other kinds of psychological disturbance come into play over the course of the novel. Did you do any research into mental illness or addiction while you were writing?
I’m fascinated by mental illness and psychology – I’d have been a psych minor in college if I’d taken one pesky statistics class – so I had some basic knowledge to build on. But I did do quite a bit of research, especially into the emotional effects of having a parent with a disorder like schizophrenia/schizoaffective. As for Leena’s growing pill addiction, the truth I was looking for in that storyline had more to do with our growing desire/ability to change our emotions and personalities with psychogenic drugs. Where do you draw the line between what is helpful and necessary, and what isn’t? I wasn’t concerned with getting the medical side of the addiction perfect since Leena was being influenced by…extenuating circumstances.
The inhabitants of Frost House are an eclectic group. Which of the girls do you most resemble? Were any of the others based on your own boarding school housemates?
According to my friends, I most resemble Leena. I see parts of myself in her – we share a somewhat irrational and unproductive fear of emotional pain – but we’re very different people in most ways. Celeste is similar to me in her artistic nature, her love of fashion, her appreciation of beauty in weird, unconventional things. As I keep assuring my boarding school roommates, none of the characters are based on them! (Well, except for the fact that Leena’s roommate who’s away for the semester is named Kate – that was my roommate’s name – and that she’s in Russia for the year. One of our housemates did spend a semester in Siberia.)
For this kind of thriller/suspense novel, the pacing is crucial. How did you approach that aspect of writing? Did you ever struggle to get it just right?
Yes, I struggled!! After I’d finished a solid draft, I made charts of what happens when, in relation to different plot threads. Then I made sure (or tried to make sure!) that the elements were increasing in intensity as the story progressed. But a lot of getting it right came from reading it over and over and listening to my gut and to my editor about where the tension was flagging. I cut and replaced a lot of scenes along the way.
Did you have a certain playlist you listened to in order to set the tone for this eerie novel?
I actually can’t listen to music while I write -- I find it too distracting. But if you mean music I listened to during breaks to get in the mood, I’d say PJ Harvey. Also Kate Bush, Adele, and Feist. Music that has a strong sense of yearning.
Leena has had several bad relationship experiences. What dating advice do you wish you could give her younger self?
Yeah, poor Leena. I guess I’d tell her she has to be a better communicator. She shouldn’t just assume she knows what a guy is thinking by his actions. If he isn’t that into her, she’s going to find out sooner or later, and sooner will spare her a lot of heartache.
Why did you choose the closet as Leena’s safe (or not so safe) place?
I find closets in old houses super creepy. I can always imagine being trapped in one, or visualize someone in the past trapped in one. They have that weird dichotomy of seeming like a safe place to hide away, but also seeming like the hold the potential for evil. Doesn’t everyone feel that way about them? :)
Can you give us any insight into Celeste and David’s unusual sibling relationship?
Well, they’ve been forced to take care of each other because of their father’s illness. Since David is the older brother, this really translates into him taking care of Celeste. And because Celeste is intense and a bit wild, he actually has reason to worry; she does kind of crazy stuff and gets involved in dangerous situations. BUT, as Celeste says, she’s not as weak as he thinks, and resents that she’s been cast as the fragile victim. So, there’s lots of complex stuff going on between them. Ultimately, though, their situation has forged a very strong bond between them, as they rely on each other to cope with the stress and sadness about their father, and their fears about what his illness means for their own futures.
What is a random fact readers probably don’t know about you?
Hmm… Readers probably don’t know that when I was in fourth grade, I won a nationwide Kellogg’s cereal art contest by drawing a picture of Snap, Crackle and Pop eating breakfast in the forest. I won a 10-speed bike and was crazy excited!
Will we see any of the characters from Frost again? What can you tell us about your next book Immaculate?
I won’t be writing a sequel to Frost, but I do love it when other writers give characters cameos in later novels, so I can’t say for sure that won’t happen. Immaculate is about a 15-year old girl in Brooklyn who is pregnant but says she’s never had sex. It’s an unusual story, and quite complicated to write. *She says, wrapping up the interview so she can go work on it some more.*
Thank you, Casey, for such great questions and for hosting me on your blog!
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Marianna!
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Leena Thomas’s senior year at boarding school begins with a shock: Frost House, her cozy dorm of close friends, has been assigned an unexpected roommate: confrontational, eccentric Celeste Lazar. But while Leena’s anxiety about a threat to her sanctuary proves valid, it becomes less and less clear whether the threat lies with her new roommate, within Leena’s own mind, or within the very nature of Frost House itself. Mysterious happenings in the dorm, an intense triangle between Leena, Celeste, and Celeste’s brother, and the reawakening of childhood fears, all push Leena to take increasingly desperate measures to feel safe. Frost is the story of a haunting. As to whether the demons are supernatural or psychological . . . well, which answer would let you sleep at night?