May 15, 2023

What Simon says—and doesn’t say

Interview by
Middle grade author Lin Thompson reveals the many secrets at the heart of their second novel, The House That Whispers.
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Soon after Simon and his sisters, Talia and Rose, arrive for a week at their grandmother Nanaleen’s house, Simon becomes convinced that the house is haunted. But in Lin Thompson’s second middle grade novel, The House That Whispers, Simon’s deepest fears aren’t things that go bump in the night—they’re all the things he can’t control, such as the possibility that his parents might split up, the way Nanaleen seems to be having more trouble remembering things and the fact that Talia hardly ever talks to him anymore. The walls of Nanaleen’s house may be trying to tell Simon and his family something, but in order to move forward, they’ll all have to find the courage to listen.

The House That Whispers is your second published novel. How was its creative journey different from the journey of The Best Liars in Riverview, your first novel?
The biggest difference was the timeline, honestly. I spent over seven years working on my debut before we sold it—and then The House That Whispers went from an idea to a draft to a final manuscript in about a year total. It was such a wildly different creative experience, but in some ways, all those years I spent working on my first book gave me the tools to be able to write this second one so much more quickly.

It was also incredibly helpful that I got to work with my editor right from the start this time. I was so nervous when I sent her my first draft, which was a complete mess compared to the fairly polished versions she’d read of my first book, but she was able to sort through my jumbled thoughts and gently home in on what I’d written the book about: a kid who feels like too many things in his life are changing all at once, and who’s scrambling to try to control the few things he can.

Tell us about Simon and what’s going on in his life and in his heart as the book opens.
Simon is an 11-year-old trans kid with a big imagination and a lot of energy. At the novel’s start, he and his two sisters are going to spend a week at their grandmother’s house while their parents work through some marital issues at home. Simon is also starting to notice that his grandmother is forgetting things and his older sister is pulling away from him more and more.

With all these things already shifting in his family, Simon has decided that it’s not the right time for him to come out as trans just yet, so he’s been keeping his gender and newly chosen name to himself for now. Whenever the other characters unknowingly misgender him, he fixes the name and pronouns in his head (and on the page) so that the reader, at least, gets to know the real him throughout the story.

How did you develop Nanaleen’s house as both a setting and a character in its own right? Is it based on any real houses that you’ve spent time in?
I knew the feeling I wanted the house to have. Simon’s family has lived there for several generations, and I wanted to convey a sense of weight from that history, from all these lives that have come before and the unexpected places that their stories slip through the cracks.

For the simple logistics, when I realized how important the house itself was going to be, I looked through records of houses built in the same time period and combined a few to make myself a floor plan.

I also took inspiration for a few bits and pieces from the houses of my grandparents on both sides of my family: the dormitory-esque room where Simon and his sisters sleep, the upstairs closet full of old stuffed animals, and the walls and walls of family photographs.

“I was incredibly secretive as a kid, for reasons I couldn’t have articulated back then.”

For a novel with the word whispers in the title, there sure are a lot of secrets that the characters aren’t telling one another. What drew you to creating a story in which so many characters are withholding things? Did any characters reveal any secrets or surprises to you as you drafted?
I think secrets are a theme I’m always drawn to. I was incredibly secretive as a kid, for reasons I couldn’t have articulated back then. Now I can see how that instinct was probably tied to gender discomfort and neurodivergence, but at the time it just felt like I had all of these thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t let anyone else know about because it would change the way they looked at me. I didn’t realize how much that was weighing on me until I started finding people I could comfortably open up to.

But I’m also very interested in secrets within families and that strange dynamic where everyone in the family seems to know about something but no one really talks about it. Simon’s great-aunt Brie definitely surprised me as I was drafting. I knew I wanted to explore some of those unspoken family secrets, but I wasn’t quite sure how, and with Brie, it really felt like I was uncovering pieces of her story and her life as I was writing them.

The novel is set during a pivotal time for Simon’s family, and in some ways, Simon’s parents also function as ghosts within the story: They’re physically absent for much of the novel, but they’re definitely present in Simon and his siblings’ minds. What felt important to you to convey about these dynamics?
I love that description of Simon’s parents as ghosts. Even though they’re not on the page much, their relationship issues really kick-start the story, and the stress of that is always lurking in the back of Simon’s mind. I think it all ties back to those themes of secrecy and the things we don’t talk about. Even as Simon’s parents are struggling, they’re trying to maintain this image for the kids that everything is fine. But Simon and his siblings all know on some level that it isn’t true, and in a way, it’s scarier for them to know that something is wrong without having anyone tell them what. At the same time, Simon spends a lot of the book doing a similar thing—trying to convince both himself and his family that he isn’t bothered by everything that’s happening, even though it’s more and more obvious that he is.

“Too often, when adults talk about ‘protecting’ kids from certain things, it really feels like they’re just trying to protect themselves from having a slightly uncomfortable conversation.”

Simon and his older sister, Talia, are deeply affected as they uncover the story of their great-aunt Brie. What would you say to an adult who thinks that middle grade readers aren’t ready to learn about the hidden and sometimes hurtful queer histories in their own families?
Back when I was a children’s librarian, we talked a lot about how important it was for kids to learn about hard subjects like death or divorce before they encounter them in their own lives. Having that context already in place can be invaluable if or when they do have to navigate those scary times.

I think the same concept applies here. Kids should know that queer people exist and have always existed, and it’s OK to tell them that queer people haven’t always been treated well and that it isn’t fair or right. Kids are going to learn it at some point—they might have already—and it’s so much better for them to hear that message from a trusted adult who can answer questions and help support them through it.

Too often, when adults talk about “protecting” kids from certain things, it really feels like they’re just trying to protect themselves from having a slightly uncomfortable conversation. But if you aren’t talking with your kids about hard topics, that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning about them—it just means that while they’re learning about them, they’re also learning to put their trust somewhere besides you.

Throughout the novel, Simon grapples with the concept of perfection, especially with regard to his understanding of himself and his family. What do you hope young readers take away from his experiences and the realizations he eventually has about this idea?
I hope readers can see that perfection isn’t a real thing. So much of Simon’s focus on perfection is about the external image of it: this false projection of a perfect family or a perfect life. But none of it reflects what’s actually going on internally. And the more Simon and his family focus on making their lives look perfect from the outside, the more they’re neglecting their actual feelings and struggles underneath. Simon himself spends so much energy trying to look happy that he makes himself miserable in the process. But you’re allowed to feel negative emotions, and you’re allowed to acknowledge when you’re having a hard time. Better to be messy and real.

“You’re allowed to feel negative emotions, and you’re allowed to acknowledge when you’re having a hard time. Better to be messy and real.”

What was the most rewarding part of writing this book?
Putting words to Simon’s gender euphoria. I loved getting to write a trans kid who feels so much joy in figuring out who he is, and it was important to me that he keep carrying that joy even as he’s struggling. Now more than ever, I want to get to celebrate what an amazing, happy, beautiful thing it can be to be a trans person.

Read our review of The House That Whispers by Lin Thompson.

What about the book are you most proud of?
It’s such a simple thing, but I’m proud that the reader gets to meet Simon as himself, even before the other characters in the book know his name or gender. It was deeply cathartic to let Simon take charge of how he’s referred to in the story and how the reader knows him. He tells us who he is, and we just get to believe him.

It seems fair to call The House That Whispers a ghost story of sorts. What are some of your favorite ghost stories (in any medium) and why? Have you ever personally had an encounter with something supernatural?
My favorite ghost stories are the ones that seem at least as interested in exploring the characters’ inner journeys as they are in the actual ghosts. One of the inspirations for this book was “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix; I love how that show uses horror to explore the characters’ emotions and mental health and the cycles of trauma in the family at its center.

As far as I know, I’ve never had a direct encounter with the supernatural. I did have a bit of a scare while writing this book, though. My home office is in the basement, and sometimes I would be working after dark, and I started hearing these scritch-ing sounds in the walls and shuffling behind the ceiling tiles. As it turned out, we had a mouse infestation! It really felt like the universe was trying to give me a fully immersive writing experience. If there are any actual ghosts in our basement, they don’t seem to want to bother anyone.

Author photo © Katherine-Ouellette

Get the Book

The House That Whispers

The House That Whispers

By Lin Thompson
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ISBN 9780316277112

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