Kirsten Miller is the co-author of Brightly’s Book Club pick, Nightmares!, a seriously spooky and wildly fun novel about a boy who ventures into a dream realm to save his younger brother. We chatted with Kirsten about the fun of writing with Jason Segel, how the duo found the balance between telling a creepy tale and frightening readers too much, and what kids can learn from Nightmares! about conquering their fears.
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You’ve had a co-author, Jason Segel, for this middle grade series. What is it like to write with another person?
Jason is the first person with whom I’ve co-authored a book, so it was a totally new experience for me. I must admit I was a little apprehensive at first. I wasn’t sure if I was the sort of writer who could “play well” with others. But in all honesty, working with Jason has been an absolute dream. Our senses of humor are remarkably in sync. (Think: poop jokes. Lots of them. And monkeys with Portuguese accents.) I’d say our talents as writers complement each other perfectly. I’m great at scene-setting and world-building. Jason adds the humor and charm — and he’s a whiz when it comes to dialogue. It’s been a wonderful, fulfilling partnership. In fact, we’re already hard at work on a second book series!
Nightmares! is a little scary. How did you walk the line of presenting a spooky story without totally freaking out your readers?
I think most kids love to be scared. I know I did. I still do! (I also sleep with the lights on, unfortunately.) But Jason and I certainly didn’t want to give kids terrible dreams or leave them emotionally scarred. So we made the decision early on to avoid blood and guts. (Though there are a few gnarly looking zombies.) However, in the end, I think the “line” was relatively easy to walk with the Nightmares! series because all three books focus on the importance of facing one’s fears. Jason and I wanted to empower our readers to figure out what scares them — and then find the courage to fight it.
What were some of your worst nightmares as a kid, and how did you deal with them?
Jason had horrible nightmares as a kid, but I was largely spared. The only nightmare I can remember from my youth involved aliens landing in the woods behind my house. I don’t recall being too tormented by the dream, but I do think it inspired a lifelong interest in UFOs and extraterrestrials. I find the more you know about certain subjects, the less likely they are to haunt your dreams. I haven’t had a UFO dream in years!
Processing grief can be a difficult and complicated experience — and Charlie struggles with some complex emotions related to the death of his mother. Can you talk a little bit about Charlie’s journey over the course of the book?
At the beginning of the Nightmares! series, our protagonist, Charlie, is furious. His mother has died, and it seems as if a witchy new woman is determined to take her place. Charlie lashes out at his family — and his stepmother in particular. He simply doesn’t know how to deal with the misery and terror that are fueling his rage. Over the course of the series, he learns how to face his biggest nightmare — saying goodbye to his mother. And he figures out how to keep his mom with him, even though she’s gone. I do think it’s key that there’s never a perfect resolution to this storyline. Charlie’s sadness doesn’t completely disappear. He’s still a kid growing up without the person he loves most. But by the end of the third book, he’s ready to help others deal with similar grief.
Is Charlie’s experience based on something personal from your or Jason’s life?
Neither Jason nor I have lost a parent, thank goodness. But we’ve both had to say final goodbyes to people we loved. So we built on those experiences — and I spent a great deal of time thinking about my daughter, who is approaching Charlie’s age, and imagining how she might deal with my loss. Not the most pleasant thing to ponder, I assure you. I’m tearing up as I write this!
There’s humor threaded throughout the book despite its spooky setting and weightier themes. Even as Charlie enters the depths of the Netherworld, readers will find some laugh-worthy moments. What message do you hope to send about humor in the face of darkness?
I’ve found that a good sense of humor is the best defense against what Charlie calls the darkness. Without my sense of humor, I’d probably be huddled up in a corner or hiding under my bed right now.
All of us, at some point in our lives, get a good taste of the darkness — and if you let it, that misery will fill you from head to toe. But every time you open your mouth to laugh, a little light gets in. So you have to find reasons to laugh — especially at those times when life seems bleakest.
Which personality trait of Charlie’s do you really appreciate?
I admire Charlie’s bravery.
I think the Nightmares! books contain a very important message about what it means to be brave. Bravery is not the same thing as fearlessness. In fact, I believe that most people who’ve acted bravely in the face of danger will admit that they were absolutely terrified at the time. And that’s something kids should know! There’s no shame in being scared. Real heroes feel fear — and do the right thing anyway. That’s what it means to be truly brave.
There are so many wonderfully odd characters in the Nightmares! series. Which was your favorite to create?
Oh, definitely ICK and INK, the evil — or are they? — twins who pop up in The Sleepwalker Tonic and then reappear to play a big part in The Lost Lullaby. I love the idea of two prim and proper British schoolgirls wreaking absolute havoc in a small mountain town. We had a lot of fun coming up with all of their escapades. (Yes, the baking soda in the ketchup bottle prank really works, in case any kids out there are wondering.)
The twins’ backstory was inspired by tales that my late father-in-law told me. He was a young boy in Glasgow when the city was bombed during WWII. I still marvel that he managed to live through that nightmare and grow into the wonderful man that he became. ICK and INK are a tribute to him.
And to evil twins everywhere, of course.
Books in the Nightmares! Series:
Kirsten Miller grew up in a small town just like Cypress Creek, minus the purple mansion. She lives and writes in New York City. Kirsten is the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kiki Strike books, the Eternal Ones series, and How to Lead a Life of Crime.