Tracey Neithercott’s first book was written by hand and illustrated with some really fancy colored pencils. It was highly acclaimed by her mother. Now, she writes YA stories of friendship, love, murder, and magic. (None of which she illustrates—you’re welcome.) She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, who suggests improving her novels by adding Star Wars characters.
1. One of the main components of Gray Wolf Island is the shifting dynamics between the characters, all of whom have such incredible energy that they fairly leap off the page and into the reader’s imagination. How do you create your characters? Are you inspired by the people you meet? Do you collect quirks and characteristics from your interactions which later make an appearance in your books?
Character is something I’m very deliberate about, so it makes me incredibly happy to hear you liked the Gray Wolf Island gang. Thank you!
There was a time—oh, three books ago—when I would start the character-creation process by filling out character sheets that included things like birth date and preferred ice cream flavor and favorite color. It was a phenomenal way to procrastinate, but it told me nothing of substance about my characters.
Now my character building tackles elements that affect who the character is deep down—and a more well-rounded personality grows from there. The major details I start with include: What is the character’s “fatal flaw”? What secret is he or she hiding? What’s the character’s deepest yearning? And how does all of that impact the character arc?
I also think it helps to throw in contradictions—most people aren’t exactly as they seem on the surface. That, for me, was something to really keep in mind as I created the characters for Gray Wolf Island. In the main timeline, it’s told from Ruby’s point of view, which means Elliot, Charlie, Gabe, and Anne are all side characters. I knew from the start that I wanted them each to feel like main characters, and to do that I had to remember that there was more to them than the person they show Ruby—or the person Ruby sees.
Of course, that didn’t guarantee three-dimensional characters off the bat. After I wrote the first draft of the book, I went back and revised for character. I did another round of revision after that specifically to turn Anne from a cardboard cutout of a character to someone who felt real. And I did yet another revision to make sure the boys (and their dialogue) felt distinct from one another.
For me, it’s a bit like watching a painting go from abstract to precise. Like layers of paint, I slowly layer dialogue on top of actions on top of fears on top of secrets on top of personality type.
2. Is Gray Wolf Island a real place? If not, is there any specific place that it is inspired by?
Both Wildewell—the small Maine town the characters are from and the setting for the second point-of-view storyline—and Gray Wolf Island off its coast are pure fiction. But I definitely had a real-life inspiration for the island.
Oak Island lies just off the coast of Nova Scotia, a speck of land that became famous when rumors of a treasure started floating around. Hopeful treasure hunters have been digging on Oak Island for centuries, most focused on a seemingly endless pit and the possibility it’s hiding something good.
I learned about Oak Island a few weeks after I first got the idea for Gray Wolf Island. At the time, I didn’t know where my treasure would be buried, just that there was a treasure somewhere. That’s when my husband started watching The Curse of Oak Island on the History channel, which chronicles the modern-day hunt for the island’s treasure.
A lot about Gray Wolf Island is based on that real-life island: its bottomless hole, a history that’s half legend, tales of death, and the general air of mystery about the treasure.
3. Death and grief are pretty prominent themes in the novel. Bruno Bettelheim, an academic, theorized that children use fairytales to deal with real life stress and conflicts in the safe space offered by their imagination and fiction. Do you think the same can be said of grief?
That’s such an interesting observation! I’m no psychoanalyst, but I do think fiction in general can help us deal with real-life difficulties. It’s along the same line as bibliotherapy—reading books to help deal with issues we may be facing in our day-to-day lives. There’s a Psychology Today article about this that says, “Research has shown that literary fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others, to put ourselves into another’s shoes; to become more intuitive about other people’s feelings (as well as our own), and to self-reflect on our problems as we read about and empathize with a fictional character who is facing similar problems. When we find ourselves weeping with or for the character in the story, we are also weeping for ourselves; a sort of catharsis.”
That sounds a bit like Bettelheim’s theory that reading about issues like trauma and grief can help kids deal with their own grief or trauma. And I definitely think a theme of Gray Wolf Island is acknowledging and facing that grief.
I also think stories—whether they’re fairytales or other fictional accounts—can help us deal with real-life stress by providing an escape. I’ve been undergoing a super painful treatment for my rare chronic disease, and books are getting me through it. Each night, as I begin the treatment, I’m able to escape real life and dive into worlds of imagination.
4. Another thing I took note of while reading Gray Wolf Island is your use of physical space to tell the story or create an atmosphere. How much do you think a person’s landscape affects a person (or character’s) personality?
I think this is a highly undervalued aspect of character-building—and one I didn’t consciously consider during that first draft but will for the next book I write!
I think it’d be hard not to be shaped, at least in part, by our surroundings. For some teens—and you see this a lot in YA literature—that means feeling stifled in a small town. In Gray Wolf Island, I knew small-town Wildewell plus Gray Wolf Island off its coast would impact the characters, especially Gabe and Elliot.
Elliot, for instance, lives in a house that almost leans into the ocean, as if stretching toward the island. He’s grown up with a family of treasure hunters and the pull of the island right there across the sea. I knew that’d affect him as a character, and it’s part of why he’s so obsessed with the treasure.
5. My favourite character is Charlie Kim and I can’t wait for the world to meet him. Do you have a favourite among the characters in Gray Wolf Island?
Don’t make me choose! I love them all for very different reasons: Charlie’s humor and sense of adventure in the face of his visions of death, Gabe’s desperation to be better than himself, Anne’s ability to see the good in everyone, Elliot’s big heart beneath his prickly exterior, and Ruby’s devotion to her sister.
There were times writing this, though, that I was convinced Doris Lansing, Anne’s grandmother, was the best of all. I pretty much laughed nonstop while writing her scenes.
6. What are you working on next? Can we get some hints?
I’m an incredibly slow writer, so I’m working on finishing the draft of my next book. This might be done some time around 2045.
The book is, like Gray Wolf Island, contemporary with a magical twist. But this book has even more magic—I’m calling it contemporary fantasy. And if that’s not a thing, pretend it is.
I’ve been referring to it as Rumpelstiltskin, if Maleficent were the miller’s daughter. It has a New England setting, a disabled boy narrator, a girl narrator who’s definitely evil, puzzles, a mystery, and (I hope!) a lot of fresh and interesting fantasy elements.
I love it … when I don’t hate it.
7. What is a book you have read recently that you would like to recommend to our readers?
I feel like a broken record because whenever anyone asks this I automatically shove When Dimple Met Rishi in their hands. It’s completely adorable, and Rishi is the sweetest, most considerate book boyfriend ever.
Other YA contemporary romances I’ve recently read and loved: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren, Kissing Max Holden by Katy Upperman, and (for the nine billionth time) Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
I also read Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns recently, which I loved. It’s a rich fantasy reimagining of the evil queen from Snow White.
I’ll stop myself now before this list grows any longer. I just really like to read.