Many, many years ago, I was working on a masters in feminist criticism and I did a journal entry on how I’d fix the classics. Evangeline would stop her ceaseless searching for the boy she’d left behind and open a fast food franchise with her face on the sign so he could find her. Madame Bovary survey the men around her, decide that there must be more to life than these guys, and strike out for new parts. Hester Prynne would look around town and say, “What a bunch of hypocrites,” and make everybody pay through the nose for embroidery. And the governess in The Turn of the Screw would send a letter to the kids’ guardian at the first sign of ghosts that said, “Get your butt down here, this place is haunted.” As the years passed, I lost my interest in saving Evangeline, Emma, and Hester, but the governess haunted me. She didn’t even have a name. It was so wrong. “I’m going to do my version of The Turn of the Screw,” I’d tell people. Nobody said, “Oh, goody.” They probably thought the original version was holding up pretty well. I did, too, but something had to be done about that governess. Finally I decided it was time. “I’m going to write my version of The Turn of the Screw,” I told my editor. She didn’t say, “Oh, goody.” Well, all great artists are misunderstood. I persevered, my editor said, “I trust you,” I signed a contract, and then I had to actually write it.
Here’s the thing about Great Ideas: They’re ideas, not plots. I’d thought, So she’ll be a governess and she’ll call him to come down to the country when she finds out about the ghosts. And she’ll have a name . . . and that was it. That was my plan. After a couple of days of staring at a blank laptop screen, I regrouped. What was it about The Turn of the Screw that had stayed in my head all those years? What was it that made me want to do my version of it? Yes, yes, the governess had no name, get over it. And yes, she should have yelled for help, but that’s a paragraph. What had kept that idea lodged in my frontal lobe like a kernal of popcorn in a molar? Why had I signed that contract?
The more I looked at it, the more hopeless it became. James’s heroine was barely twenty and innocent and earnest. My heroines are in their thirties or older and jaded and snarky. James’s heroine had been isolated, in the middle of nowhere with only two children, an illiterate housekeeper, and a couple of ghosts. My books have casts of thousands. And then there was the nineteenth versus the twenty-first century problem: Even James’s governess would have called for help if she’d had a cellphone, and there aren’t a lot of ghosts whose horror can survive being googled. I was screwed.
But the story was still there, pressing on me, so I gave up and began to write, the kind of writing where you think, “This is pretty good, but I have no idea how it fits with what I promised my editor.” I wrote the first scene, a play on the governess’s first and only interaction with the children’s guardian, only in my world, they weren’t strangers, they’d been divorced for ten years. She still looked at him and thought, as the governess thought in her scene, that he was everything that was wealthy and handsome and successful and charming, she just also thought, And that’s not enough. Like the guardian in James’s book, the hero had attachment issues (he doesn’t want to); like the governess in James’s book, the heroine is determined to do a good job; but in my world, there’s no “she never saw him again . . . . [and] that’s the beauty of it.”
I moved on and took care of cellphones and Google by setting the book in 1992. I moved the setting from England to southern Ohio, but put it in a house brought over from England a hundred years before, a house that had been torn down and shipped overseas because it was haunted by two ghosts, a valet and a governess, and because a little kid had died there. (I was working on the premise that anybody who’d read The Turn of the Screw would say, “Ah ha! Bly!” and anybody who hadn’t would look at the history and say, “Creepy.”) I gave it a housekeeper who was across between Mrs. Grose and Mrs. Danvers. I gave it two kids that the heroine described as “Damian and the Bad Seed.” And I kept writing because writers are like sharks: if they stop writing, the book dies.
And then, just about the time I was despairing of ever understanding what I was doing, it became clear. I wasn’t writing James’s governess because James’s governess annoyed the hell out me. I was writing the inverse of his governess, the character I wanted in there saving the children. His governess is young and untried, mine’s older and experienced. His is given to romantic ideals, mine lost any sense of romance in her divorce. His is eager to be loved by the kids, mine just wants to feed them and educate them. Most of all, his governess is isolated and mine is plagued with guests like locusts. As one of the ghosts tells her after explaining that they take their strength from human emotions, “You here alone didn’t give us anything to feed on, you were too calm. Then all these whackjobs showed up and it’s been an open buffet ever since.” The children were different, too. James’s orphans were paragons, trying to please the governess, little beings made of light and smiles. I live with two kids and while I think they’re adorable, there are also times I want to beat them like gongs, so Alice and Carter are often gong-worthy, but they have a history that explains why: they’re orphans in a haunted house. They’re going to have some bad days. And the romance is different. For one thing, there is one, none of this “She only saw him once and that was enough.” If the romance doesn’t work, nobody gets out of there alive. So it’s a ghost story with a romance, not a ghost story with a crush-on-a-guy-she-never-sees-again. I personally feel this is an improvement.
In fact, I pretty much love this book. Thank you, Henry James, for giving me the start of it, and thank you, Jennifer Enderlin, for giving me the contract to write it.
Oh, and (click here for the first chapter.)