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Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has been featured in The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Carpe Articulum Literary Review, Afternoon, I Like Monkeys, New Witch Magazine, MudRock: Stories & Tales, other literary publications and anthologies. She is the author of two books: Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole: Tales from Haunted Disney World (Admit One Literary Theme Park Press, 2010), her collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks, This Poisoned Ground (Dark Alley Press, 2014), and her Pushcart-nominated novel Bad Apple (Vagabondage Press Books, 2012).

Schoonover is co-editor for Read Short Fiction. She holds a BA in Creative Writing in Literature from Burlington College in Vermont and an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She lives in the Connecticut woods with her housemate, Charles, her husband, Nathan, and three cats, and she still frequently goes to bed with the lights on.

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BAD APPLE

“After an unfortunate incident on a Maine apple orchard, precocious teen Scree is left with a father she’s not sure is hers, a never-ending list of chores and her flaky brother’s baby, who she is expected to raise. In a noble move to save the child from an existence like her own, Scree flees to a glitzy resort teeming with young men just ripe for the picking. But even as life with baby becomes all she’d dreamed, Dali-esque visions begin to leach through the gold paint… Bad Apple is a dark, surreal ride that proves not all things in an orchard are safe to pick.”

Zinta for The Smoking Poet: Kristi, welcome to the pages of The Smoking Poet, where we have previously enjoyed reading about your first book, Swimmin’ Hole: Tales from Haunted Disney World. This time, we’d like to talk to you about your novel, Bad Apple. Can you give our readers a synopsis of Bad Apple?

Kristi Petersen Schoonover:  Honestly, the back of the book pretty much sums it up; I think revealing more would ruin it because of the nature of its ending.

Zinta: Tell us how Scree was born … in your imagination. What inspired her? What shaped this fascinating and complex character?

Kristi: My characters just “show up,” really; Scree, like so many other characters in my body of work, walk into my life uninvited ninety-five percent of the time (I can tell you there are only about six stories in my entire canon in which I intentionally wrote the story because I had a character in mind). In this case, I was on a writer’s retreat at a house in Maine. It was very hot, and the view out my windows were these trees in a large field, and I thought, “that reminds me of the apple orchard I used to visit when I was a kid.” And then, Scree, and her whole story, showed up. The first draft of Bad Apple was written in 2005, and it wasn’t until many years later—during the process in which I was working on revisions with the publisher—that I realized Scree was really just the young me: an abandoned, lonely, confused youth caregiver trying to simultaneously recover her stolen childhood and seize a hopefully better, happier, freer adulthood.

Zinta: This surreal quality in the story sneaks up on us, the readers. All seems normal enough … well, quirky, but a normal quirky … and then something a little off happens here, a little more off there … and gradually you realize you are in some kind of a carnival world of mirrors, where nothing is what it seems. Do you get a little, hm, off when you are writing about such characters? Like actors who get deep into their roles while working on a movie?

Kristi: I spent many years acting in community theatre, so I naturally am able to separate the life “on-stage” from “off-stage”—I’m able to be that character only during the time I’m writing her. Part of this comes from the acting training in which you’re taught that a character isn’t a mask you put on; she’s a piece or side of you that comes up and out of you. So she’s easy to “put away” when your time with her is over—she’s always there, inside you, all the time anyway. So when I’m not (mentally) walking around in the universe, I’m just the same old me.

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Zinta: Not sure I’d call this a horror novel, although it gets into some pretty uncomfortable and dark places, but you’ve delved into horror in your body of work. I understand Edgar Allen Poe is your favorite author?

Kristi: Poe has always appealed to me because his work is so multi-leveled; there is much more going on in any one of his given stories than appears on the surface. There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness which comes through his text; he writes, primarily, about heartbreak: the heartbreak of loss, the heartbreak of something once-great falling into decay or being destroyed; the heartbreak of injustice (I’ve found that if you look deep enough into each piece, one of those three things is at its core). What’s also there is the tenet that a person—any person—can be triggered into madness, whether it be through guilt, passion, oppression, or circumstance.

Zinta: What about that genre works on you?

Kristi: Horror—or at least the type of subtle horror that I prefer—is really about what it means to be alive. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is scary because it takes the universal fear that we’ll be punished for our sins or crimes one day. Jackson’s “The Summer People” is scary because it plays on our fear of isolation. “The Monkey’s Paw” is scary because it suggests that we really do have control over our own fate to an extent and that doesn’t always go well. Horror is scary because it gives body to our fears; it makes them tangible. When I am done reading a well-written horror story, I have a better understanding of myself—and others.

Zinta: Is there a special meaning to the bear that fell down in the well? I puzzled over that … the girl Scree is so attached to this bear that is lost to her early on, but returns to her throughout the story. A symbol of childhood that remains with her?

Kristi: She’s haunted by something she lost. The bear is also a symbol of her own childhood, which was stolen from her when she had to become “grown up” herself to raise the baby and do the chores. She spends the book seeking not necessarily bear, but what “bear” represents: her innocence, that time in her life when she was free to grow, free to play, free to be.

Zinta: Your writing is beautiful, rich with detail, and alive. What was the path that led to that quality?

Kristi: The expected answer, and the right one, is that I spent many years reading good writing, and many years studying good writing and honing my craft. But that’s really only part of it. I think the key to writing richly is to step into the story and see it—like a movie in your head—and simply describe what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Don’t worry about words, don’t worry about sentence structure, don’t worry about anything as you write the first draft, because crafting—that process of cleaning up and working with the language—is what you do after the draft is done. Let it flow the first time; you’ll find you have better raw material to work with.

Zinta: The background of the story, its scenery, is rich, too. Is it based on an actual place? Did you enjoy wandering haunted places as a child … perhaps still do?

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1 Inspired the Orchard*

Kristi: I’ve always been very big on setting as a character in stories; this probably comes from the fact that as a child, I never wanted to be where I was: I always wanted to live or be in some better environment. Hence, most of my stories are set in real-life places, and I’m a stickler for accuracy. Several settings in Bad Apple are based on real places; I’ve only changed names in a couple of spots. The Beechwood-by-the-Sea Inn where Scree gets a job is based on a place I full-time waitressed when I was in college: The Larchwood Inn in Wakefield, RI, which is now, sadly, abandoned. It’s the Larchwood that had all the plaid vests, the obsessive napkin folding, and the rooms with different color schemes and china. And some of the characters she meets at The Beechwood are based on the people with whom I worked (although their names and clear identifiers have been altered). That’s probably why that part of the book feels so alive; it came more out of my memory than my imagination. The cake shop Frannie visits is based on the place from which I bought my cake for my first marriage’s reception, and the baker is much like the woman who baked my cake. Conversely, some settings are places from the past that are gone, or places I’ve never been. Another of Bad Apple’s settings that’s real is the resort. It’s based on an old Borscht Belt jewel in the Catskills called The Pines. This setting required lots of research and studying of old photographs, because now the place is abandoned, and even though I have visited it a few times, I’m not gutsy enough to venture inside—it sounds unbelievable, but if you stand as far back as several hundred feet from the broken front windows you’re still not safe from being overwhelmed by the smell of mold and rot. Makes you think twice about venturing in—materials which have decomposed to that point release bacteria and harmful toxins that can make a person very sick, causing everything from rare lung infections to hallucinations.

Zinta: Do you believe in the supernatural? See ghosts? Hear hinges squeak?

Kristi: I do believe in the supernatural—I’ve seen, heard, and felt some things I simply can’t explain away, yes, it scared me. But who’s to say “ghosts” aren’t just a product of some branch of physics we don’t yet understand? Supernatural truly implies what it means—it’s beyond what we understand as natural. And until we can understand it, it’s going to continue to be scary because it’s unknown.

Zinta: Do you scare yourself?

Kristi: I have a wild imagination, so I frighten easily, but it’s mostly a direct result of someone else’s work. I’m never scared of anything I’ve created in my own work, and I think that’s because I am the “puppetmaster,” if you will: in my own worlds, I’m in control of what happens in them, how ugly that monster is, where he came from, and when he appears. It’s like riding through Disney’s Haunted Mansion with the lights on. When you see how everything works, it’s suddenly not scary.

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2 The Larchwood Inn*

Zinta: Fifty percent of your royalties from the sale of Bad Apple are being donated to the American Association of Caregiving Youth. Tell us about that …

Kristi: The whole process was interesting. I should probably define who caregiving youth are first. From the AACY website: Caregiving youth are children and adolescents who look after someone in their family who has an illness, a disability, frailty from aging, a mental health problem or a substance misuse problem. They take on practical and/or emotional caring responsibilities that normally would be the role of an adult…In addition, many caregiving youth also have responsibilities for younger brothers and sisters and all or most of the household chores.

Right around the time Bad Apple was published, I was surfing the web one day and saw a CNN headline that had something to do with children taking care of sick adults. I remember thinking, ‘hey, that’s what I did growing up!’, so I checked it out. By the end of the article, I had figured out two things. The first was that I had been a youth caregiver. I took care of my brothers and sister and my Mom when she was sick, and I’d never thought this was anything extraordinary. I knew it had screwed me up, but I never really thought that there were other people out there like me who had done the same thing; I was as lonely with the damage from it as an adult as I was in the situation as a youth. The second was that Bad Apple, at its core, was really the story of me. Told through a purely fictional lens to make it interesting—it’s not a memoir, it’s a metaphor—but it was really a depiction of my younger years. I hadn’t consciously thought that when I was writing it. It was something my body still needed to process, and Bad Apple is how it did it.

I thought that if there had been an organization like this when I’d been growing up, maybe my life would’ve been different. Maybe I’d have grown into a stronger adult. And so I decided that I should donate to them. Maybe a few of my dollars will make a difference in a struggling youth’s life. Maybe it will give him or her an opportunity I never had.

For as long as Bad Apple is in print, I will donate 50% of my royalty checks to the AACY. In addition, $3/per every print copy I hand-sell myself (such as at a con or speaking engagement) will be donated to the AACY. You can learn more about them at www.aacy.org

Zinta: You’ve stated elsewhere that you developed yourself as a writer without support. Tell us about that … and how you became your own support system. What kind of support does a writer ideally need, if any?

Kristi: I was referring to my parents when I was growing up. They simply didn’t want me writing, and they made that pretty clear, down to forcing me to play an instrument, sing in church choir, take gymnastics (and after Mom died it was raising all my brothers and sisters—there was always something I was supposed to be doing instead of writing); they generally frowned upon me spending any time with typewriter. That’s why I loved going to school so much—I wrote in notebooks on my lunch break, at recess, in study hall, because the support I did get was from all of my friends (and my aunt and cousin), especially once I got to high school. I also had a few great teachers who supported me and praised my work—but they couldn’t really give me the guidance I needed in order to know what to do with it beyond submitting it to the school magazine (which I did, of course, and everything I submitted was published, but it was high school, they probably published everything). I had one teacher in high school who told me that I should be submitting work, but this was back in the late 1980s, and submitting was a different game back then; you didn’t just jump on the Internet: there was a physical process, typing it up error-free, including an SASE, mailing it out, and to find what few markets there were buying work you had to go to a library and look it up in an actual directory that was much like a phone book. Doing all that without your parents cheering you on wasn’t exactly easy. It wasn’t until I got to college that I finally learned about having writing friends, getting criticism, working on the craft and what being a writer on a professional level really meant.

Writers need support on many levels. If I had to boil it down, a writer needs to have other writers to confide in, people who understand him; a good mentor or two along the way; a group of people to offer criticism and feedback in order to help him to improve; and a cheering section—those people who aren’t writers that think everything you do is awesome; those people who really believe in you (like your parents and friends). I mean that. Because when you’re having a bad day, a really nice compliment out of nowhere, or just some happy encouragement, can mean the difference between contemplating giving up or getting back on the horse.

Zinta: Are you a writer who reads a great deal while you write—or avoid reading at all? Seems writers fall into those two groups, one with the fear of losing their own voices while working on a project, the other looking for a regular injection of inspiration.

Kristi: I love to read and always have; for me, it’s always been an escape. If it’s high quality writing, then I will see the world that’s on the page in my mind, as though I’m in a movie (if something is poorly written or I’m bored, it won’t “visually translate” to me, so I put it down without finishing it). Whether or not I read something while I’m writing, then, really depends on the particular project. When I was writing Bad Apple, I didn’t read anything—but that was just because I was so deep into my own world I needed to stay there: I needed to keep seeing the own movie in my head and not watch someone else’s, not because it was going to affect my writing style, but because it was going to pull me out of my universe. Conversely, when I was writing “This Poisoned Ground” – which really needed to be a Poe-esque piece – I’d re-read one of my favorite Poe short stories to keep me on track. On the flip side, sometimes I start reading—a particularly good book of short stories, for example—and I have to stop because I get so inspired I need to go write. When I’m not writing anything, I have to be in the mood to read a particular title, and then I tend to be a “binge” reader: I’ll railroad to the end, and if it’s excellent I’ll study it and take notes. This might sound like a great system, but the disadvantage is I just can’t get through all the books I’d like to read in short order. I’ll have a book on my shelf two or three years sometimes before I get around to it.

Zinta: You’ve been both traditionally published and self-published. How do the two differ in your experience?

Kristi: While I enjoyed both processes, I definitely prefer being traditionally published, only because I’m part of a team: I’m a cog in the wheel, and there’s always support and counsel right there; there are people to call who are as excited about your project as you are and who want to see you succeed as much as you do. Self-publishing was incredibly liberating, but it was also all on me from soup to nuts: who to hire to edit, who to hire for a book cover and layout, who to hire to handle setting up distribution—sure, there’s CreateSpace now, but a great tool is nothing if you don’t know how to  use it. I probably wouldn’t self-publish again unless I had another Disney ghost story book.

Zinta: You’ve been on a couple of residencies to further your writing career. What did those do for you? Is it important for a writer to sometimes check out for the world out there to withdraw for a while to the world in here?

Kristi: The best part of a residency, for me, is always being in a new environment—there’s something incredibly inspiring about different surroundings: different smells, different sights and sounds, different people. Each time I went, I came home with new stories inspired by that. The second best part of a residency is having quiet time to focus only on writing. It’s amazing how, in the day-to-day, there’s constant distraction. At a residency, there really isn’t anything else to do but read or write: no cleaning, no social obligations, no bill-paying or laundry: all I have to do is make sure I have wine, food, some books, and something to write with. In fact, it’s tough to get used to; the first couple of days I usually have to spend just settling into a new routine.

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3 The Pines

Zinta: What new projects are you working on, Kristi?

Kristi: I have one short story I’m focused on at the moment. I have several others written I’d like to clean up—apply the critique I’ve gotten from my writer’s group and writing friends—but those are on the back burner. This really isn’t a “writing” year for me; I’m focused on some other, non-writing projects, so I’m only writing when the mood strikes. But that’s not ever a bad thing. I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I’m not in a place to create, I get to work on other things. “Block” really just means my body is taking a much-needed break to grow.

Zinta: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

Kristi: The best place to visit is my website, www.kristipetersenschoonover.com. The “Read My Work” tab has links to several stories published in literary magazines, which you can read for free. But just about everything you’d ever want to know (and some not, maybe!) you’ll find over there, including links to my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Zinta: Thank you, Kristi.

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CAPTIONS

 

1 Inspired the Orchard

 

These trees, on the property of a writer’s retreat near Casco Bay, Maine, were what inspired the orchard setting in Bad Apple. The opening scene of the book was written on that retreat in September, 2005.

 

2 The Larchwood Inn

 

Schoonover worked as a full-time waitress at The Larchwood Inn in Wakefield, RI, back in the early 1990s. Her experiences there that inspired Scree’s job and The Beechwood-by-the-Sea Inn. This old postcard shows the inn when it was in full operation as a thriving restaurant and inn. It closed its doors in 2006, when Schoonover’s former bosses could no longer keep it due to a death in the family and costly required upgrades. The property has changed hands several times in the past eight years.

 

3 The Pines

 

The abandoned Pines resort in an area of the Catskills, New York, called The Borscht Belt. The Borscht Belt resorts—in their heyday between the 1940s and 1960s and now mostly gone forever—catered to summering Jewish clientele. Several, such as the Heiden which was featured in the film Sweet Lorraine, burned to the ground after being left to rot for years; others have been razed. While a few of The Pines’ buildings have burned, most still stand in decay, making it a popular destination for urban explorers.

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