Posted: May 25, 2007 in Uncategorized

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Promise Not to Tell: a Novel by Jennifer McMahon

Part ghost story, part coming of age tale, Jennifer McMahon’s Promise Not to Tell was a book I found impossible to put down. It features a dual plotline, alternating between past and present. At 41, Katie Cypher returns home to New Hope, Vermont to care for her mother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Ghosts from her past begin to crop up after a local girl is murdered in the same way Katie’s childhood best friend was murdered 31 years before.

An interview with Jennifer McMahon:

LG: Who, or what, influenced you most in your decision to become a writer? Have you always known you wanted to write?

JM: I wrote my first story, “The Haunted Meatball,” in the third grade. My teacher loved it and talked me into attending a summer writing course, where I started keeping a journal and never really stopped. In junior high I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought, “Wow, I would like to be able to do that.” I wrote a few short stories, and a really bad novel in high school. By college, I saw myself as a poet, and I actually started work on an MFA in poetry after I graduated.

So I’ve always been writing and known I was a writer, I just wasn’t sure anything would ever come of it. In 2000, I finished a novel, and decided to see if I could find an agent to represent me — to my amazement, a well-respected agent loved it and took me on as a client. I quit my day job to focus on writing full time (I was also building a house, so it wasn’t quite full time). Two agents, four novels and six years later, I finally sold Promise Not to Tell to HarperCollins — it wasn’t until that happened that I really believed I was going to be an honest-to-god paid writer.

LG: What sort of writing schedule do you keep? What works for you to keep your writing on track?

JM: I stay at home with my three year old, and my partner Drea works full time, so I write when and where I can — I don’t really have a set schedule. If my daughter is contentedly playing by herself, I might get 15 or 20 minutes in. When Drea or my mom is able to watch her for an hour or two, I take full advantage! And I have learned to make very good use of what little writing time I have. I do really well with deadlines, both from editors and self imposed, and this helps me keep on track. I have a day planner that I use to make lists of everything I have to get done in a week. Each day I look at the list to see where I’m at and what’s next. I’d be lost without it.

LG: ‘Promise Not to Tell’ is a novel heavily influenced by the supernatural. What about this subject matter appealed most to you?

JM: I grew up believing in ghosts (I was totally convinced there was a spirit named Virgil living in my grandmother’s attic) and with a love of scaring people. My brother and I would have friends over for séances and stage elaborate “visitations” — ghosts on fishing line, recordings of eerie voices in closets. It worked every time, and it thrilled me to death.

When I began Promise, I had written three novels, two of which were being shopped around by an agent with very little success, and I told myself that the next book would be “the one”. We were living in cabin deep in the woods of Vermont — no electricity, phone, or running water, and a 1/4 mile hike up a steep hill. Nights were sometimes pretty scary — was that an owl? or a woman screaming? was the distant drumming a party? or a cult in search of a sacrifice? — and I had the idea that it would be a great setting for a ghost story. I started re-reading authors like Stephen King and Peter Straub, thinking about what scared me. Once I had my ghost — Del Griswold — I had to figure out how she had died. She was murdered of course. And who murdered her? Why? And so Promise evolved into a mystery too.

LG: What contemporary writers do you admire? Have you read anything lately that you’d recommend?

JM: A few writers I especially admire: Kate Atkinson, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Sarah Waters, Gillian Flynn, Denise Mina, Alice Sebold, Donna Tartt. I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff lately, so it’s hard to choose favorites. I just read Laura Lippman’s What The Dead Know and loved it. In the crime/suspense genre, The Liar’s Diary by Patry Francis was also great. I just started The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig, and it’s fantastic so far.

LG: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?

JM: I have a young adult book, My LaSamba Blues, coming from Dutton next summer — it’s about two misfit girls who fall in love. I’m just finishing the edits on that one. And another crime novel for adults coming from HarperCollins, also next summer (busy summer!). It begins with a woman witnessing a young girl being kidnapped by someone in a rabbit suit. That one is between titles at the moment. Editing is about to begin on that one, and I think it’s going to be great.

LG: Aside from writing, what sorts of hobbies, or pastimes, do you have? How do you spend your free time?

JM: Free….? Time….? Oh yes, I remember what that is! Let’s see, I hang out with my daughter. We go to playgroups, story time at the library, and do a lot of art projects. I read whenever I can — a wide range of stuff but lately I am loving crime fiction and mysteries. One of the many wonderful aspects of being a published writer is that I am suddenly much more aware of all the great fiction that’s coming out, and I want to read all of it! I watch movies when I get the chance and particularly love a good horror flick. I try to keep on top of the garden, but it’s not easy.

LG: Finally, as a public library employee I’m compelled to ask, what role have libraries played in your love of books and reading?

JM: Libraries (and librarians) have been a tremendous resource for me throughout my life. Growing up, I viewed the library as almost magical — I could go in, pull a book off the shelves and be instantly transported to other worlds. As an adult, libraries still carry a piece of that magic for me. Anytime I start a new venture, be it putting in a perennial garden, taking up knitting, or deciding to write a ghost story, the library is always the first stop. My daughter, who is three, has her own card, and we visit our two local libraries once or twice a week. She is so happy to be able to pick out her own books — she even likes returning them “so other kids can read them too.” It’s wonderful to see her enjoying some of that library magic already!

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Photo by Paul E. Garstki
Jennifer McMahon’s Website.

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