In Watch Over Me, Nina LaCour’s first novel since her 2018 Michael L. Printz Medal-winning We Are Okay, 18-year-old Mila is placed as an intern on an idyllic farm after aging out of the foster care system. Mila becomes unsettled when she discovers that the farm is haunted by ghostly figures and tokens from her old life begin to appear. BookPage spoke with LaCour about haunting, healing and feeling at home in ourselves.
Mila’s story stands in stark contrast to tropes about the foster care system as neglectful or abusive. Why did you choose to tell a different story?
I wanted to write a loose retelling of The Turn of the Screw with Mila as the character of the governess. I ended up straying far from that original idea, but at the time I asked myself what it would look like to move Henry James’ novella into a contemporary setting and to add more expansiveness to the story—more characters, a wider range of emotion and more context.
As I explored these ideas, I remembered reading a San Francisco Chronicle article about a couple who had adopted a large number of children out of the foster system over a period of many years; it sparked the inspiration for that part of the story. I wanted a lot of love in the story because there was a lot of darkness, too. My aim was to write the story of people who had endured horrible things but who had arrived at a place where they would be cared for while they worked through their individual traumas.
Mila’s growing confidence during her life on the farm is interwoven with increasingly intense memories of why she was placed in foster care in the first place. How did you arrive at this structure?
The structure was very difficult to get right. I wanted to write a frame novel. I've always loved that structure; some of my favorite Gothic novels are written this way. Frankenstein is a frame novel, and The Turn of the Screw is, too. I thought we'd start with Mila's life as it is now, then we'd enter her past and stay there for the duration of that part of her story, then we’d finally return to the farm for the rest of her journey.
But as hard as I tried, I just couldn't make it work that way. While I loved the concept of the tidy frame, I think the messier, more tangled version is better suited to Mila's story. Memory is messy, trauma is messy. So it makes sense that they didn't fit neatly into the center of the story and would instead need to rise up over and over, surprising Mila, challenging her, making her take notice even when she'd rather forget.
I don't write chronologically—I write all over the place, working on whatever scene is calling to me when I sit down to work—and then I fit everything together, so there was quite a bit of moving those past scenes around from draft to draft.
I loved the appearance of the book’s very mysterious, ambiguous ghosts. Were they inspired by any particular ghost stories?
The moments in ghost stories I always like best are when the ghosts first appear and cause a reaction in the character. I rarely care as much about what they do next. The 2017 film A Ghost Story was really powerful in that way for me. It was a movie about grief in which a ghost in a white sheet—borderline comical—shows up as a visual representation of Rooney Mara's character's grief.
I wanted Watch Over Me's ghosts to be very real, but I also knew they'd be metaphorical as well. It was tricky to get them right, but I feel like we're all surrounded by ghosts all the time, whether or not we want to look at them. Ghosts of who we once were, ghosts of the people we've lost or lost touch with, ghosts of what might have been if our lives had moved in different directions . . . I was drawn to the idea of these ghosts swarming around, living their own ghost-lives, and what impact they would have on the living residents of the farm. Who would be afraid of them, who would be at peace with them. What all of it might mean.
The farm’s setting is so atmospheric—idyllic, isolated, tucked between the hills and the ocean. Was this setting inspired by any real place(s) that you read about or visited or have lived in?
Oh yes, absolutely. I've always lived in Northern California and it's my favorite place in the world. For a while, my wife, Kristyn, photographed weddings and I'd assist her. We'd drive a few hours north from San Francisco to photograph at all these lovely little tucked-away farms that you'd never even know were there. Then when I was doing research for the novel I visited Nye Ranch, a beautiful produce and flower farm in the Mendocino area. It's right against the coastline—one of the most hauntingly beautiful places I've been to—and I was glad when the flower farmer there told me that lots of the area farms are haunted and that she'd seen a ghost at her own farm!
You often write deeply introspective protagonists, and Mila is no exception. What draws you to write about characters with such rich and self-reflective inner lives? Has your approach to these characters changed over time?
I live quite a bit in my own head, I guess! This has always been true for me, so it's the way most of my characters have turned out as well. I had the privilege of working with Yiyun Li when I was in grad school at Mills College in Oakland, California, and she was a visiting professor there. She told our workshop group that she always loved it when she had a chatty narrator, and I have had the pleasure of one of those—Emi from Everything Leads to You. But apart from Emi, my narrators tend to be the quiet, thoughtful, reserved type.
"I think growing up is really beautiful and really hard, and we do it over and over again all our lives."
Mila is maybe my most reserved narrator of all. She is concealing so much of her life and wants so badly to do the right thing, to be good, to be easy and useful and pleasant. In order to be these things for her new family, she has to suppress the more difficult parts of herself. She does a lot of internal navigating in order to be who she thinks they want her to be.
In terms of how my approach has changed, over time I've allowed my characters to be a little messier. I've gotten them into situations that don't have clear answers, because I'm learning that life is full of uncertainty and many shades of gray.
Mila is at a pivotal moment in her life. She’s just aged out of the foster care system, but she’s also not quite ready for all the responsibilities of being an adult. You depict moments where she poignantly longs to either be older or younger than she is. What do you hope readers take away from Mila’s feelings in these moments?
I think growing up is really beautiful and really hard, and we do it over and over again all our lives. It can be painful, and it's only natural to wish for a time when things felt simple or to look into the future and imagine how it will be when this particular phase of growth is over. Mila longs for both, and seeing herself in contrast to the younger residents of the farm makes the fact that she isn't a child anymore—that she's responsible for healing herself—starker. But what a gift it is to have people by your side, loving you and caring about you while you do that hard work with yourself. Discovering who these people are and growing to trust them is part of Mila’s journey, too.
Having Mila serve as a teacher and start to recognize her own talents as a budding educator was such a great way to illustrate how she’s straddling this border between childhood and adulthood. Your own background is full of teachers and teaching, in your own personal history as well as in your family. How did your personal relationship to/experience with teaching impact this part of Mila’s story?
I used to be a reading tutor for kids at a public elementary school in Oakland. I met one-on-one with the same students over the course of the school year. The character of Lee was inspired by the kids I worked with. They were so young and so eager to please, and their emotional wounds felt very close to the surface—and I felt deeply unsure of myself and terribly unequipped to help. I cared, and I tried my best, and I got some things right and many other things wrong. Teaching is fraught that way, for me. I love it, but sometimes I look back at some of my teaching decisions and wish I could do them over.
"We all have wounds. We all carry damage. It makes us fully human."
Another incredible teacher I studied under at Mills College was Ruth Saxton. She taught a class on pedagogy with a teaching practicum that went along with it. She brought so much wisdom to her classes but she gave us so few answers. I used to wish she'd give us more, but in retrospect I realize that she was modeling how to teach. Teaching is so often an act of meeting the student where she is and offering her the resources and encouragement she needs in order to get to the next step. It's more about asking questions than it is about delivering knowledge. Mila inherently understands some of that, which is why Terry, the father figure of the family, considers her a gifted teacher.
At one point, Mila says, “Maybe the fear doesn’t ever actually go away. Maybe we have to keep on working.” What advice or encouragement would you give to teens doing that kind of work?
I would say that as much as I'd like to tell them otherwise, for most of us our wounds won't ever heal completely. But also, that it's OK. That we own it—whatever it is—and we can use it in all sorts of ways. We can use it for art. It can be a source of empathy and strength. We all have wounds. We all carry damage. It makes us fully human. The sooner we realize that we're responsible for ourselves, that we're strong enough to look at the things we've lost, the things we've done or that have been done to us, the mistakes or missteps we've made, the sooner we'll begin feel at home in ourselves.
Let’s end on a lighter note: I found the scenes at the farmers market, where the atmosphere is such a contrast to the world of the farm, so appealing. Do you shop at farmers’ markets? If so, what do you love about them? What’s your favorite fruit and vegetable? Is there something you especially love to make or cook with the produce you purchase?
I do! I love the pleasures of seasonal produce and the way farmers markets show the progression of a year, especially because here in San Francisco where the climate is mild year-round, we don't have the stark changes of season that other places do.
I love the pomegranates and squashes and citrus and bitter greens of winter; the persimmons and pears of fall; the berries and artichokes of spring; and, best of all, the tomatoes and eggplants and basil and stone fruit of summer. I love arriving at a farmers market and finding that strawberries have arrived.
Meeting friends at the market and lugging our big bags of produce around, chatting over coffee about how we are and what we'll be cooking later—that’s one of the simple pleasures of life that I miss so much right now, in the time of COVID-19 and as wildfires rage across my home state. But I know we'll get to do it again, and it will be even sweeter when it happens.