Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Haley Newlin is a horror and thriller writer, who released her debut novel, Not Another Sarah Halls, in December 2019. I've known Haley since our Study Breaks Magazine days in January - May 2018 as college undergrads. She went on to work towards her Master's and writing while I am awaiting the publication of my debut novel. You could say that Study Breaks Magazine was a foundation for a great writer friendship from different ends of the globe. I highly recommend reading her Author's Note first when you pick up her novel, you won't regret it.
With only five chapters in, I was already itching to know more about the characters that reside in the forgotten town of Oakhaven. Mysterious ones fill the dark town as an on-going investigation keeps main characters, Autumn and Becca, on their toes. Readers follow high school girls (and their past memories), Aut and Bec through this Young Adult Horror Novel that reminds me of the original It movie based on Stephen King's Horror Novel of the same name. King also happens to be Haley's horror hero. If you are a fan of his bloody mysteries and twisted tales stick with me as I review Newlin's debut novel, Not Another Sarah Halls, while also hearing from Haley herself, since I wanted a personal touch. Lucky for all of you horror fans and readers, alike, she said yes!
I am not a horror fan, by any means, but Newlin creates the perfect balance of the elements from the Young Adult genre with a taste of the Horror genre that the novel's cover art deciphers. When I think of horror, my mind instantly goes to examples like Stephen King's It and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street movies that cause me to sleep with the light on or throw a blank over my head. Yet, Haley Newlin's Not Another Sarah Halls touches on the lighter side of this rather terrify writing medium. As I was reading the novel's first half, I noticed a happy tone that reminded me of my style of writing - Young Adult. So, as any curious writer and reader, I asked the author, herself, what made her horror novel so lighthearted in the face of danger.
Emily: As writers, we all struggle with picking the best title to capture the essence of our story. How did you decide on Not Another Sarah Halls and what were your other choices?
Haley: I played around with a few other ideas for titles, speaking more to the mental battles Autumn faces, rather than the disappearances in the town. But I wanted to show Autumn’s core character element of heightened empathy. She follows the string of girls, but Sarah Halls seems to be the one that lingers, the one that truly haunts her. It’s also the disappearance that shakes her and seems to say, “You’re right. The girls are unforgettable, but you have to do more to fix it.” That’s why I wanted to use Sarah Halls’ name in the title. Readers can look out for the title’s name drop a few times throughout the story.
E: Your writing style is so unique. Tell us about your writing process and brainstorming the words, terms, and creations you come up with for your novel.
H: Thank you very much. Similarly to how Stephen King weighs an idea for a book, I create some framework for a story mentally. This process can begin with a character and their unique abilities, a setting that drives the plot, or maybe even just a scenario that will build up with action and tension. Then, I turn to music, films, interviews with directors like Mike Flanagan, Jordan Peele, and Tim Burton for ideas or sentiments of characters or world-building elements. It's incredible how much inspiration you can acquire by listening to the greats in your genre.
I use this inspiration to create a series of scenes rather than chapters. Then, as I develop more scenes, I find new details or ideas for earlier pieces that allow them to become full-fledged chapters.
I also read a lot when I'm working on a novel of my own. It not only keeps me inspired but offers different tacts in integrating storytelling elements and conventions of the horror/dark-fiction genre that may be useful in my work.
E: How did this story, characters, and town come about? The background behind crafting a mystery like "Not Another Sarah Halls?"
H: I began writing Not Another Sarah Halls as a freshman at SNHU. We were studying flash-fiction and genre-blending. My professor said I had a knack for creating characters that would connect to readers in the Young Adult genre, so that's how I began creating Autumn and Becca's characters--among the others in Oakhaven. The two are based loosely on my twin sister, Hanna, and I.
I created the town as more than a backdrop for the action, but with careful consideration of how I could use: its appearance, its people, the weather, et cetera, to aid in plot/character progression. The small community allowed for the familiarity of people that characters had never spoken to or only briefly, like Cali or Ms. Dillard. People from the Lafayette or Indianapolis, Indiana area might pick up on a few local nods, like the Branding Iron at Lafayette Jefferson High School.
E: How did you bring such a light tone to Autumn and Becca's friendship in the middle of all the fear?
H: Bringing the emotional tone between Autumn and Becca was a pillar of Not Another Sarah Halls. Because of the fierce and compassionate nature of their friendship, including the moments of separation and pain, they cause one another; the girls consider parts of themselves comprised of one another.
I created this tone by integrating elements of my identical twin sister and I's friendship. It's not always at its best, but the bond is still there. I think that despite the circumstances, the comfort of positive familiarity in a town where the norm is selfish, allows the light tone of Autumn and Becca's friendship to feel natural to readers.
E: What two words would you use to describe Autumn and Becca's friendship?
How do you hope best friends relate to them and how growing up changes that friendship?
H: I would describe Autumn and Becca's friendship as ever-lasting and fierce. There is an ever-lasting connection there even after they grow up with different ideas about the Dae house. Readers can see that in several ways, like Becca still trying to get Autumn to come to the Dae house with her even though it's not her thing and in the way, small everyday things remind Autumn of Becca.
The way Autumn and Becca forgive and look out for each other, even when they're not in the best circumstances themselves, is fierce. It reminds readers when things change in life; they should focus on the core parts of the friendship that has always connected them, not the differences.
With the young adult elements weaved into the horror genre, NASH stands out as a well-crafted story that deals with friendship and fear.
The opening to Not Another Sarah Halls even gives off lighter tones with the scare factor as an undertone, "The fog descended on Oakhaven the same way the apparent never-ending curse had - so quickly, no one saw it coming." Yet, the dark and cursed town gives off a sense of comfort, if only viewed from the hilltop as Autumn and Becca often did to escape the townspeople who had moved on too quickly from the missing girls' case. But for Autumn, more so than Becca, the long-forgotten girls were her crime obsession. She had to keep the hope alive even when the other townspeople went back to everyday life. By giving Autumn this trait, Newlin takes her readers through twists and turns via Autumn's psyche. Not only weaving in her fears but also her curiosity to find out the truth, Newlin captured the need to solve the most unsolvable cold cases. She lets us sit front and center as she teases us with the truth that was hidden so many years prior in the "dried-up oil town," known as Oakhaven.
E: Without giving spoilers, give the readers a little overview of Oakhaven--the good, the bad, the ugly, and most importantly, lessons that come from this town you've created.
H: Oakhaven is a cursed town. Readers learn early on about the string of cold-case disappearances. What stands out about the people living there is their shared cover-up of the ugliness in the town's history. They hold vigils for the missing girls after they reach the three-week-milestone--a selfish and heartless method of moving on from the disappearances.
The people of Oakhaven also fear the Dae family. But they do little to understand the "evilness" that is said to go on in their house. This ambiguity of the house stemmed from the Radley place in To Kill a Mockingbird. While the characters in the two stories living in these mysterious houses are different, the way the town whispers and create legends is similar--though few try to learn the truth.
The lesson to be taken away from Oakhaven is not to accept the norm of a town or even society if it seems to contradict core values. Convenience should never trample compassion.
Drawing from her own cold case curiosity of famous serial killers, Newlin dove headfirst into embracing Autumn's appeal to her hometown's investigation turned cold case. Readers see firsthand how the voices of the missing can mess with someone's mind even years later. From illusions that make Autumn's blood boil to itching curiosity that keeps her searching for one shred of hope, Newlin lets the demons come out to play.
Newlin doesn't lightly dive into the terrifying side of Autumn's psyche, no, she describes in detail what she is feeling and seeing in her illusion. As Haley tells me, "Chapter ten was the most fun to write," and any reader can see why. She pays close attention to detail making me want to desperately know the ending. Reading this chapter, I kept thinking, how much worse can Autumn's nightmare get, then it got worse each turn I took deeper into her subconscious. Newlin reveals just how much terror our minds can induce as we grow more and more obsessed with finding answers that others have long forgotten.
"It was like Emily, Avery, and Peyton woke up one day, completely unaware of the flames below their feet as it climbed their bodies and seared into their skin and bit by bit they were reduced to ash, blown away and lost in the wind." -Not Another Sarah Halls, via Haley Newlin, Writer.
E: Without giving away spoilers, how did you connect to Autumn's psyche? In crime shows, people are affected by investigations in their hometown, but why is Autumn so drawn or affected by the disappearances in Oakhaven?
H: I talked about this in an interview proposal with Split Lip Magazine. I first studied cold-cases in a psychology course as a freshman at SNHU. We studied serial killers/clans like the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, and the Manson Family. Growing up, we believe justice follows crime wherever it unleashes. However, calling back to To Kill a Mockingbird, that's not always the case. It bothered me how long the cases at the hands of these famed killers went unsolved. Fellow students in my class were ready to move on because of the vile nature of the killings. But for me, like Autumn, the names of the victims haunted me ever since--though the murders took place decades before I was born. Sometimes, without even thinking about it, my thoughts wander to Cecelia Ann Shephard or Caryn Campbell.
Autumn gives readers an inside look into living with anxiety as she is open and honest about dealing with the daily struggles that anxiety brings from mind games to your skin crawling.
"Conceal your wounds so no one has to deal with your bleeding." - Autumn
This part of chapter ten is so deep just like scars can be. It is no secret that Autumn deals with the effects of anxiety and panic attacks while also deviling into the self-harm side of things. As someone who has dealt with suicidal thoughts and self-harm, I relate to Autumn so much and her struggles. She is brave yet afraid at the same time. Some might even argue that she could be afraid of her own shadow with the images her mind creates out of fear.
In this horror centered novel, Haley weaves in not only major fears (murder/kidnapping/cold cases) but personal fears or battles that we may all come to face (anxiety/self-harm/panic attacks). I'm not usually one for horror, but Haley crafts such a unique story that keeps me hanging on for more. Especially since the main character being open about their anxiety or mental health struggles, in general, is rarely front and center, this story keeps my attention glued to the page. Yet, I still found myself wanting to know more of a backstory on why anxiety plays such a pivoting role in the main storyline, thus far. Although Haley touches on her personal battles in her author note, I decided to get more insight into what made her "shine a light" on her own fears. Because let's face it, facing your deepest fears is a challenge in itself, yet Haley gives her characters the tools to face anything.
E: Tell us how you wove your personal battles with fear and anxiety into a horror-based novel. From the note from the author to the first chapter, readers meet Autumn, a young girl struggling with anxiety.
H: Weaving my own battles with fear and anxiety into a horror-based novel like Not Another Sarah Halls came naturally to me. I think horror is an excellent tool in shining a light on elements of our lives that we often keep stowed away. If you think about it, anxiety is a lot like the monsters in a horror story. We close our eyes or try to focus on something until it goes away. But that's only a momentary fix. Much like characters find out in horror stories; eventually, the fear has to be faced head-on.
With that mission, comes the unavoidable task of asking yourself what triggers the anxiety or fear in the first place. Most times, this is personal--even if others sit under the same terminology or umbrella of symptoms. In coming to terms with my own battles of mental health, I learned that the only way out is through. As Shirley Jackson says, "We yield to it, or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway."
E: Becca always repeats the phrase, "Mind over matter" to Autumn during an anxiety attack. What does that phrase mean to you & where did the motto stem from?
H: I think it's important for people to understand what happens with anxiety. As readers see in Autumn's character, anxiety can trigger your flight-or-fight response--increasing your pulse, breathing, et cetera. While this is a disorder that isn't treatable with well wishes and inspirational quotes, we have to remind ourselves that not everything is out of our control. And during anxiety attacks, that's how people usually feel--helpless. Becca's anecdote tells readers to look for a new angle. Find something that you physically have control over in those moments. It distracts you from focusing on the things you can't help.