Susan Dennard kicks off a darkly magical, action-packed new series with The Luminaries, which introduces a mysterious world filled with monsters. It’s the story of a teen girl named Winnie Wednesday and her quest to rejoin the secret organization of monster hunters who keep her town—and the world—safe. Dennard chatted with BookPage about her novel’s unusual origin story, the unexpected ways she still uses her marine biology degree and how she continues to grow as a writer after eight books and 10 years as a published author.
Can you introduce us to Winnie and what’s going on in her life when we meet her?
The book opens on Winnie’s 16th birthday in a town called Hemlock Falls, where nightmares rise in a nearby forest each night. Seven clans within the secret Luminaries society are charged with fighting those nightmares and protecting the world at large. There’s one clan for each night of the week, and Winnie is a Wednesday.
Four years ago, Winnie’s father was revealed to be a Diana—aka a witch, the sworn enemy of the Luminaries. Her dad ran off, but Winnie, her brother and her mom remained behind, still loyal to the cause. They were given a 10-year sentence to exist as outcasts within Hemlock Falls as punishment for not seeing what their dad really was.
Ever since that moment four years ago, Winnie has been secretly training to participate in the deadly Hunter trials. She is convinced if she can pass and become a Wednesday nightmare hunter, her family will be welcomed back into the Luminaries society.
The Luminaries has a pretty unique origin story. For readers who have no idea what I’m talking about, could you give us a quick rundown?
The Luminaries was an idea I first tried to sell in 2013 without any success, so my agent and I shelved it. Fast-forward six years to 2019: I was in a dark place after a miscarriage and didn’t like being alone with my thoughts, so while sitting at LaGuardia waiting for a flight, I thought, “Let’s do something fun on Twitter.”
I hastily typed off a tweet that began the story of The Luminaries, and at the end was a poll in which readers could choose what to do next. Little did I know that story would last six months, with thousands of people voting every single day on what Winnie Wednesday would do!
How did the story change in its transformation from interactive Twitter thread to novel? What was important to you to preserve in that transformation and why?
It changed a ton, actually. For two reasons: First, I am not someone who wants to rewrite a story she’s already written—the fun is in the discovery. Second, if I had tried to replicate our online tale, it would never have lived up! Ninety-five percent of the fun came from the communal elements, like the teams that cropped up (like #TeamThirst, who always voted toward romance, or #TeamPetty, who always voted for the worst option), the chitchat between readers, the roping-in of friends so they would vote too . . . I couldn’t match that!
So I ended up taking the world and characters and crafting a wholly new tale. But of course, I made sure to include the most iconic moments and some Easter eggs for the original LumiNerds.
Winnie’s family’s motto is “The cause above all else. Loyalty through and through.” What did you enjoy about creating her character?
It’s fun to write a character who very rarely questions the why of something and simply does because they believe so deeply in a cause. It makes knowing what Winnie will do in a scene easy: She will always work toward a singular goal. But then it’s especially fun to introduce cracks into that character’s loyalty, to have them start noticing and questioning and wondering if maybe they’ve got it all wrong.
You write so empathetically about Winnie’s emotions: She feels hurt by her family’s ostracism, but she also yearns to be included. She’s justifiably angry but uncertain about when and how to express it. What drew you to a protagonist who occupies this emotional landscape?
You know, emotions are messy. The heart wants what it wants, even when the brain is like, “That is a very bad plan.” And I think every person out there has been caught in a conflict like that. Then you throw some external pressure onto the situation—particularly from relationships that matter to you—and there’s really no way to avoid a lot of feelings. I find that it’s in those messy emotional moments that we make the most difficult decisions and come out stronger for them.
There’s a scene in which Winnie collects corpses; later, she attends a fancy event. How do you get yourself in the right headspace to write such contrasting scenes—one so dark and gory, the other so glittery and celebratory?
Ha! I had no trouble moving from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s the way the whole Luminaries world operates, and I think it’s how a lot of humans operate. There are so many truly tough jobs out there, but then we go home to our families and celebrate birthdays, and our brains toggle between the two lives pretty fluidly.
Of course, it’s not always easy—for the world at large or for Winnie—and we’ll really see that come into play in the sequel.
Scientific curiosity plays a big role in The Luminaries. How did your own background in marine biology influence this aspect of the novel?
Speaking of toggling between gore and fun, I have had the experience of cutting apart sharks on Arctic ice, then tucking into a cozy tent and playing cards all night. You can’t fully enjoy the latter without the first.
I love studying the creatures of the world and how evolution leads to such incredible adaptations. It’s what got me into marine ecology—so many amazing adaptations in our oceans! It was really fun to give Winnie the same fascination I have and to use my understanding of evolution and ecosystems to create the forest’s various nightmares.
Speaking of that forest, you write about it so vividly—the look and feel of the trees, the density of the mist, the sounds and smells of the landscape. Forests often hold a kind of archetypal power in fantasy stories. How did you go about crafting this particular forest? Was it influenced by any real forests you’ve encountered?
I was definitely influenced by nights out camping. If you’ve ever been in a dense forest when there is no moon or other light, then you know it is a feeling. You really cannot see, no matter how much your eyes adjust. And then the sounds! There are so many sounds, and each one easily takes on a sinister meaning (at least if you’re like me and have an overactive imagination). It wasn’t hard at all for me to tap into that feeling and turn it into an entire world.
There’s a moment when Winnie is talking about her family, and she says, “We deserve to dream again.” That’s such a heavy weight for anyone to bear. What would you say to a teenager who is feeling a pressure like that?
One of the main reasons I write YA is because I think teens have all the smarts and ingenuity of adults but without the baggage or prejudices. They have a clarity of thought that lets them see ways forward that we adults just can’t seem to find—or that we adults are convinced will never work.
I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to dream, but I do think hoping and finding solutions is something teens are uniquely adept at. So while Winnie’s mom would never want her daughter to be doing what she’s doing (secretly entering these deadly Hunter trials), Winnie also has that clarity of vision her mom lacks. She sees how this could save her family, and she’s willing to take that risk.
This year marks a decade since you published your first book, 2012’s Something Strange and Deadly. What are some ways you’ve changed as a writer? What makes you feel excited about the next decade of writing?
I’d like to think I’m a much better writer now than I was a decade ago—both on a prose level and on a more macro story level. And I certainly have a much more innate ability to write now than when I first began. It’s that difference between “unconscious competence” and “conscious competence.”
Of course, I’m also still learning—which is so exciting to consider. I can still get better. I love to study craft, and I hope my books only get stronger with each new title.
Author photo of Susan Dennard courtesy of Susan Dennard.