Confronting 'Riley's Ghost' with John David Anderson

SLJ speaks with John David Anderson about flawed heroes, writing this ghost story at this moment in time, and how to beat the things that haunt us all.

In Riley's Ghost, seventh grader Riley Flynn must confront frightening spirits to escape her haunted school while also confronting terrifying thoughts and feelings within herself. SLJ speaks with seasoned middle grade author John David Anderson about flawed heroes, writing this ghost story at this particular moment in time, and how to beat the things that haunt us all.

Photo by Kiera Dubach

Middle school can be rough, but Riley’s Ghost takes the “surviving middle school’’ theme to new heights. What was your inspiration for this unique story?

The impulse was to blend the conventions of the two genres—horror and coming-of-age—and explore the many ways they complemented each other. Turns out there’s a lot of overlap. That stomach-churning, heart-quickening feeling of dread that you get when you find yourself all alone and powerless, the target of some dark and malicious force that’s always right there, watching you, assessing you, waiting for the perfect moment to bring you down? That’s what middle school feels like to many kids. There is so much psychological turmoil associated with that period of adolescence, it just takes a dash of the supernatural to shift it from turmoil to terror. The laughter, the ridicule, the inside jokes—they are just as likely to induce a cold sweat as a floating phantasm or a creepy clown.      

Riley’s actions and relationships are complicated. She’s a loner who’s cruelly bullied, but she also fights back, sometimes in cruel ways. She’s also funny, whip smart, and compassionate—I found myself really rooting for her. How did her character take shape for you?

I didn’t know much about her at the start, but I found that writing in this genre afforded me a lot of room to go deep into Riley’s head and heart to see what haunted and motivated her.  

Riley’s quest (besides the obvious goal of getting out of a haunted school) is one that leads her to a place of empathy, and I think it helps for her to have experienced things like bullying, aggression, isolation, and guilt from both sides. I find it’s easier to root for a hero who is flawed, and even better when that hero can turn her weaknesses into strengths. Riley’s emotional intensity often causes her to lash out, sometimes violently, but properly channeled it also gives her the determination to confront her problems and survive her ordeal. What didn’t surprise me was her love of chocolate. She comes by that honestly.

What was your life like when you were a tween?

Um...not spectacular? As a writer, it helps to mine the emotionally charged moments of your past, and I write only middle grade fiction, so that probably says something about where I’m coming from. I experienced many of the same conflicts as Riley (and Heather)—bullying, loneliness, anxiety, parental issues—but thankfully not on the same level as other kids I knew or kids I meet today. Just enough that I can relate to Riley and appreciate the self-doubt, the pressure to fit in, the fear of the unknown. Thankfully, as a tween I had books to keep me company, and I eventually made a group of friends that I could find comfort and connection with. That’s probably one reason I continue to write to that audience, with the hopes of making that same connection.

Riley's mental health forms a big part of this book. She thinks a lot about death—about Max, Heather, and her grandpa’s sudden deaths, and about what it might feel like to be gone. The pandemic has caused so many kids to experience the grief of losing a loved one, or to live with the fear it might happen. Did the pandemic influence your approach to this novel’s themes?

In a big way. I wrote this book at the start of the pandemic, which was also the same time I lost my mother. No one was allowed to see her in the hospital and so none of her family got the chance to say goodbye. Writing Riley’s Ghost was definitely a form of therapy: I channeled my anger and anxiety through Riley as I worked through the grieving process and grappled with the uncertainty and dread the pandemic brought on all of us. Ultimately the book drives towards a hopeful place (I think) because I personally needed it to. I was desperate to believe that the people we care about are still there in some way, that their memory and legacy matter. Plus, the book is dark and gloomy—so much so that my editor asked me to make it eight to ten percent cheerier at some point. I think I hit about five percent—which, for a pandemic, is pretty good, I think.   

How long does it take you to write a book? What does your writing process look like?

It looks messy, but I think most writers would say the same. Because writing is an act of discovery, I’m generally quick with a first draft (proud member of the Pantser’s Club). I’m so eager to unpack the mystery of plots, themes, and arcs that I tend to be careless and sloppy with the execution, often writing "blah-blah" in place of what should be flowing prose. As a result, I can churn out a novel in six weeks or so, but I would never show it to anyone in that shape. The more painful and arduous revision process takes ten times as long, if not longer. Some on my own at first and then with my editor, through some eight or nine drafts. I always tell young writers that once they write “The End” they are really just getting started; at least that’s the case for me. Also, my writing process includes the following: root beer, Atomic Fireballs, potato chips, self-doubt, frequent hikes in the park near my house, mild cursing, middle-of-the-night epiphanies, and those infrequent but oh-so-satisfying moments when a sentence sings bright, and beautiful, and clear.

You really get into middle school kids’ heads and hearts. What helps take you there?

I think it helps being close to my own kids and working through their own conflicts with them, as well as having my own middle school experience branded in my brain (see above). Of course, I also try to stay current with the culture—books, movies, television—aimed at that audience because I honestly enjoy it. A lot of it, though, is that I feel bad. I feel bad for the world that they are inheriting. I feel bad for the messes they will be asked to clean up. Growing up was tough enough in the eighties, at least for me, and I think it’s only gotten harder. I look at my own kids—bright and compassionate and ambitious, but also anxious and full of questions about the world and their place in it—and I just try to approach those questions with honesty and compassion of my own.

Read More: Be Afraid (but not too afraid): Graphic novel horror for middle grade readers 

Riley’s dad is a train conductor, and some of his bedtime stories feature ghost trains. Can you tell us more about ghost trains?

Most of the spooky tales of ghost trains in the book are my own. The only story I knew of when I started writing was the one about the funeral train that went from D.C. to Springfield on the anniversary of Lincoln’s death, stopping clocks along the way. There are a few other folk tales concerning haunted trains or train stations, but I think it’s a subgenre with room to explore. After all, trains are naturally claustrophobic. The clickity clacking, the mournful whistle, the dark tunnels, the track leading on and on—there’s something inherently chilling there. There’s a reason one of the most famous literary murders happened on the Orient Express.   

What do you hope kids take away from getting to know Riley and the tough things she's going through?

First off, I hope they get a thrill. I felt confident I could write a story about a brave tween dealing with the tortures of middle school, but this is my first crack at writing a ghost story. I genuinely want readers to hold their breath or feel their pulse quicken, maybe even get an actual chill or two. Beyond that, I hope the novel helps them to think about their own legacy and potential impact, to realize that they have the courage and agency to conquer their fears and change their world, but also the responsibility to do so with compassion and understanding. We all have something that haunts us, but we all have the strength and spirit to confront it and make our peace with it. That’s how you beat a ghost.   

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