“Fiction can help us navigate fear, the same way it helps us navigate love and grief and anger and sadness. At least, it does for me.”
In The Broken Girls, author Simone St. James has created an intense, genuinely creepy novel that links the ghostly, gothic strands of a 60-year-old murder with secrets about to be unearthed in the present day.
The past and present stories are linked by Idlewild Hall, a long-abandoned school for troubled teenage girls—those “broken” by circumstance or disrupted family ties. In the 1950s, four roommates at the rural Vermont school share a bond formed from loneliness and a need to survive in the forbidding, eerie landscape at Idlewild, where generations of students have warned schoolmates that the school is haunted by the ghostly presence of a woman named Mary Hand who lurks in the hallways and oppressive gardens. After one of the four girls fails to return after a weekend visit to relatives, the school tags her as a runaway. Her friends, however, are convinced of foul play, and must play a lone hand in order to uncover the grim truth of her murder.
Old ghosts collide with the present more than 60 years later, when the crumbling school is scheduled for renovation. Journalist Fiona Sheridan confronts a haunted presence of her own, as she seeks closure in the murder of her sister, whose body was found 20 years earlier on Idlewild’s grounds.
With a ghostly setting and an addictive plot, St. James’ story is as haunting as it gets—poignant, evocative and difficult to forget.
There are many scenes in The Broken Girls that seem hopeful and bleak at the same time. Did you purposely set out to make the narrative ambiguous in that way?
Well, that’s the way I see life, so I suppose so! I don’t see any situation or any person as any one thing. So I try to portray that in my fiction. It leaves a lot of possibilities.
From the outset, did you have a full-blown concept for this ghost’s enigmatic personality, or did Mary’s motivations take on a life of their own as you wrote?
I had published five ghost stories before this one, so I’d written several kinds of ghosts. With this book, I wanted to write a haunting that was deeply psychological, preying on the characters’ fears. So I sketched out from the beginning what Mary would be like. That one aspect affected a lot of the story on its own.
Do you think all the puzzles surrounding ghostly apparitions in a novel need to be explained, or do you find it legitimate to leave some questions deliberately unanswered?
It’s a fine line to walk. As a ghost story writer you really, really want to avoid the “Scooby Doo” effect, in which everything is explained so thoroughly that it isn’t frightening anymore. At the same time you don’t want it so ambiguous that your reader is lost, and therefore stops caring. The great masters of the genre always leave certain things unexplained.
What do you think makes ghost stories so fascinating to readers?
It’s probably the “what if” aspect of it. Whether you believe or not in real life, in the pages of a novel you can ask yourself: What if it were true? What would happen then? What would the characters do, how would they react? Ghosts are also a manifestation of the past, which we’re always fascinated with, and they’re an idea of what happens after death, which humans have always wanted to know.
Why did you decide to use the plot device of balancing the past with a current-day crime plot? Did one story take precedence for you?
Using both time periods let me explore more than one aspect of the central tragedy of the book: how it unfolds at the time and the effect it continues to have through the years. Grief is one of the themes of the book, and grief is something that continues and changes with time. And it allowed me to show the haunting through generations of girls at Idlewild. Neither took precedence for me—I was equally invested in both.
Were you a fan of ghost stories while growing up? Which ghost “legacies” motivated you?
I’ve always loved ghost stories. I read Stephen King from an early age, and I have several volumes of classic Victorian and early 20th-century ghost stories. I’ve read Dracula countless times. You can’t possibly write a certain kind of book if you don’t enjoy reading it!
What kinds of background information did you seek in order to write this story?
I had to do research to make sure the 1950s era was accurate. I also had to do some World War II research that I won’t give away to avoid spoilers. That part was intense and often upsetting, and as most writers do, I learned much more than I actually put in the book. Trying to pick the most relevant facts is one of the skills of a writer.
The four teenage friends at Idlewild have very distinct personalities in terms of their impact on the story action. Did you have a favorite among them?
I didn’t; I loved writing all of them. Katie was the easiest to write, because her personality was the strongest, but I was rooting for each girl even as I wrote their chapters. I saw them very clearly as I wrote.
Fear seems to be a major factor in The Broken Girls. Did you set out to make fear serve as the main motivation for nearly all the characters in the book?
Fear is one of the themes of every book I write, and what makes me return to ghost stories. Fear is a universal emotion that has been with humankind since the very beginning, and it’s one we don’t often explore. We have lots of different fears in our lives, and not just of the supernatural. Fiction can help us navigate fear, the same way it helps us navigate love and grief and anger and sadness. At least, it does for me.
At what point in your life did you first decide that you wanted to become a writer?
I’ve written all my life; it’s just something I’ve always done, usually to amuse myself. Once I decided to get serious about it, I wrote three whole novels that were rejected everywhere and will live in a drawer forever before I wrote what would become my first published book. I spent years and years getting nothing but rejections as I wrote in all of my spare time. The experience toughened me up, and I learned to write no matter what negative things were happening around me.
Photo credit Adam Hunter