HAUNTED HEROINE: SARAH KUHN ON INSPIRATIONS AND INFLUENCES
Hello everybody! We have Sarah Kuhn back to the blog today to talk about the fourth HEROINE novel, the inspirations and influences behind it and what it means to go back to the start and write again from the perspective of the first heroine in the series plus… how it all connects to The Baby-Sitters Club and a carpet ball.
Four years ago, I visited you here at the home of the illustrious Book Smugglers to talk about my debut novel Heroine Complex. Today I’m visiting you to talk about the fourth book in the series—and the start of a brand-new trilogy—Haunted Heroine.
No matter how many times I type those words, they do not seem real. My Asian American superheroine book that became a trilogy has now become a full-on series! There’s continuity and timelines and stuff! People have favorite characters and ’ships! I actually have to remember what I wrote in the first book, because it matters for something that’s happening now!
I’d always wanted to write a series, but I have to admit that once it became a reality…I realized there were things I absolutely did not think about when I was creating the world of put-upon superhero personal assistant Evie Tanaka way back when. I had a lot of questions for/fights with Past Me while writing this book and launching the series into its next stages, and I thought I’d share how I worked through all that and prevented my head from exploding. (Although to be honest, it did explode a few times.)
Theme? What’s a Theme?
The first Heroine Complex trilogy has a different protagonist for each book: fire-wielding wallflower Evie Tanaka, diva celebrity superheroine Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang), and upstart chaos princess little sister Bea Tanaka. All three get a chance to narrate us through their adventures, and all three go through the second coming of age many of us experience in our early 20s.
That “second coming of age in your 20s” thing is what I considered to be the unifying theme of these books, alongside the usual theme for all of my work, Asian Girls Having Fun.
To be honest, I never thought I would climb back into Evie’s head again. I’d left her happy, in love, and in control of her superpower. Her relationships were finally sorted out, and she had decided to embark on a superheroing partnership with her best friend, Aveda. She had also been through a lot. The thought of taking her back to a place where she wasn’t happy or was struggling with any of this felt cruel, and I desperately did not want to do what certain sequels to my favorite movies have done (looking at you, Ms. Congeniality 2!): I didn’t want to rip away all the progress she’d made or undo any of the realizations she’d had or tear down her hard-earned happiness and relationships. I wanted her to enjoy the beautiful life she’d built.
When the first book came out, I relived a lot of it with readers. I felt, very deeply, how close I had been to Evie, and how much I cared about her. And in talking about her, in hearing what she meant to others…I was suddenly dying to hang out in her head again. But I had to do it in a way that didn’t strip away all that she’d gone through or reset all the progress she’d made.
In short, I had to come up with a new theme!
Not the Asian Girls Having Fun part—that obviously had to stay and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But if the theme of the first trilogy was “the second coming of age we experience in our early 20s”…then what would Evie be dealing with now? She’s [spoiler alert!] married, pregnant, in her 30s, and still fighting evil and saving the city with Aveda.
That is a lot of good stuff. It’s also…a lot to be dealing with at once. Just thinking about everything she had to contend with in this new stage of her life…it made me happy, but it also made me very tired.
And that’s what gave me my theme—the Having It All Myth. This idea that in order to be fully functioning humans worthy of love and empathy, we need to Succeed at Absolutely Everything and Look Great While Doing So. I think this is something a lot of us deal with. Especially women. And most especially women of color. I knew all three of my heroines would deal with this concept differently—Wallflower Evie, Diva Aveda, and Chaos Princess Bea. (Aveda and Bea are both getting a sequel too as part of this new trilogy!)
I knew Evie—like me—would try to show up for all the parts of her life fully and equally, that she would flounder and fail at times, and that she would experience the same feelings of inadequacy and impostor syndrome that I so often do. I knew she would have empathy for everyone around her, but would struggle to conjure it for herself.
I also knew that she would eventually have a lot of fun while on this journey. (And she does. This book is nicknamed Horniest Heroine for a reason.)
Location, Location, Location
We’ve spent three whole books exploring demon-infested San Francisco, and while I love it…I had a yearning to expand the world of Heroine. I wanted my girls to go places! I asked Past Me why she’d confined so much of the demonic action to a single city—couldn’t there be evil in other areas for my heroines to battle?
Well…yes. I realized, as the person who writes these books, I could invent new evil and put it other places. In this case, I had a direct inspiration that was not just my own rage-y thoughts about Ms. Congeniality 2.
I wanted to write the Baby-Sitters Club Super Specials of my series!
If you are not familiar, the Baby-Sitters Club books are a very important series for many women of my generation, tracking a delightful group of tweens who are obsessed with providing quality childcare. It was recently made into what is possibly the best TV show ever, and you can watch it on Netflix. Anyway, in the Super Specials, the BSC usually goes to some exciting new location, like the Bahamas or Paris or…Vermont. And sometimes the Super Specials are also tied to a fun holiday!
With this new trilogy, I decided we’d explore some new places—in this first book, I took Evie and Aveda over to the East Bay to investigate a series of hauntings at a local women’s college during Halloween. Crafting a creepy, ghostly, pumpkin spice-enhanced atmosphere for the heroines made the series feel fresh again to me—it gave them a whole new series of “sets” and characters to play with, and it made me feel like I was decorating a whole new room in my series’ Barbie Dream House. The Halloween bit also enabled me to answer questions like, “What would Evie and Aveda dress up as?! And what are some other, ahem, creative uses for these costumes?” (Back to Horniest Heroine…)
Also, my girls actually do end up kind of babysitting! Their mission requires them to go undercover as grad students, and in doing so, they meet a little gang of college kids that they become very invested in. Which brings me to my final inspiration/influence…
The haunted women’s college in Haunted Heroine is called Morgan College, but it’s based a bit on the actual haunted women’s college I attended—Mills College. (Only the good parts, though, I promise.)
Past Me had intended for the resemblance to my own college days to be minimal, but writing about the scent of the eucalyptus trees, the old dorms full of shadowy nooks and crannies, and the late-night runs to Taco Bell transported me fully back to that time period.
And before I knew it, I’d ended up adding a lot of elements based on favorite memories: late-night bonding sessions with new friends over silly things, throwing old dining hall plates off the roof of my dorm as a way of getting my anger out, creeping around some of the older buildings in an attempt to see an actual ghost…
And of course…Carpet Ball. Carpet Ball is a stuffed blob of muddy green that one of my best college friends, Kelly, had in her dorm room. It looks like it is made out of 70s-era shag carpet, hence the name. As time went on, it became part of our daily life. Sometimes you might pet Carpet Ball for comfort. Or toss Carpet Ball out of frustration. Or marvel at the fact that Carpet Ball had probably never been washed, ever, because no one could quite figure out how to accomplish such a task. When I told my college friends I was writing a book inspired by our days at Mills, someone immediately asked: “Can Carpet Ball be in it?!”
And so Carpet Ball is, providing Evie with some comfort and humor as she embarks on this next stage of her life. Truly, sometimes inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.
Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels—a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.
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