Author to speak about latest teen thriller

Maine native Gillian French has worked hard for 17 years to become a professional writer. Her new book “The Door to January” is a thrilling, funny and spooky page-turner that will hook adults and teenagers alike.

ELLSWORTH — When Gillian French was in sixth grade, she and her friend saw something spooky. For years, they had passed by a dilapidated old house in Searsport with a ‘condemned’ sign in front.

For most people, that sign meant danger. But for a kid like French, in love with scary books like “The Ghost Next Door,” and the “Fear Street” series, the sign was an invitation.

“We had always noticed it and it was so spooky,” said the 34-year-old French, who grew up in Sandy Point. “We were curious, so we just had to go in.”

Like in any good ghost story, the two friends ignored the warnings…and soon realized their mistake.

“It was really unsafe,” French said. “There were big holes and deer bones on the floor. The whole thing was weird. We definitely ran out the door.”

The experience was a short one, but it stuck with French ever since. In fact, French’s new novel, “The Door to January,” starts off with a similar story in the fictional coastal Maine town of Bernier. She will read from that book at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Ellsworth Public Library. Copies of the book will be available to buy and for signing. Admission is free.

‘As she stepped into the foyer, Natalie’s pulse quickened,’ reads the second page in “The Door to January.” “The stained walls; the bowed center staircase; the dim and dusty corridor to the rear of the house — she knew it all. Had never set foot inside, and yet, she knew it.’

The house keeps appearing in Natalie’s nightmares, nightmares that haunt her even after her family moves to another town.

But one summer, she returns to Bernier. Her goal? To get to the bottom of those nightmares, even if it means discovering unsolved murders, confronting small-town bullies and traveling back in time.

The fast-paced book is thrilling, funny, vivid and will keep you turning pages late into the night.

For French, the book also represents 20 years of frustrating, nearly spirit-breaking work.

“It was driving me crazy, but I couldn’t let go of it,” said the Hampden resident, who wrote the first draft for the novel when she was a sophomore in high school.

French thought that the premise of a serial killer in the past affecting a high-schooler in the present was a spicy hook. But blending those two storylines into a seamless thriller was easier brainstormed than written.

“The present-day storyline with the teens changed over and over again,” French said. “There would be different hang-ups every time and I just kept re-writing it and beating my head against it.”

French’s hard-won struggle to completing “The Door to January” reflects her journey to become a professional writer.

With two avid readers for parents, French said, she grew up in and around books and knew from the get-go that she wanted to write them too.

She wasted no time getting started, writing several 300-page manuscripts while still in high school. But French soon realized it would be a long time before she could get anything published.

“I didn’t have a realistic idea of where I was talent-wise,” she said. “I would send a book around to like 100 agents, and once you’ve got that many rejections you just don’t ever want to look at that book again.”

The rejections were tough, French said, but they helped toughen her skin. Part of the reason why she kept at it was her passion to write for young adults.

“I think you need books when you’re a teenager,” French said. “You’re trying so hard to learn about the world. How do you grow, how do you become an adult and fit into society or not, if that’s your thing? Books are a safe way to hop into someone else’s shoes and explore all walks of life.”

At the University of Maine, French’s writing game leveled up when she met Elaine Ford, a notable novelist who passed away this August.

“She was fantastic, she was just so giving of her time and her knowledge,” French said. “So many of those basic tenets of writing I learned from her.”

One of those tenets was to cut as much fat off a story as possible, so that only the most essential, interesting parts remained.

French took that lesson to heart after graduating from college in 2005. She realized she had to start building a writer’s resume, and an easier way to do that would be to start writing short fiction and entering them into contests and literary magazines.

“Short fiction is really hard for me,” French said, “but that was how I finally ended up making a little bit of money on my writing.”

Most of that money came from contests such as Writer’s Digest and Zoetrope: All-Story. Those contests helped boost French’s confidence as she honed her craft while working odd jobs in libraries and bookstores.

In 2012, French started working at the Witherle Memorial Library in Castine, where she met a children’s writer named Ellen Potter.

“Ellen was really good at teaching me how to put myself in the shoes of the reader,” French said.

With Potter’s lessons in mind, French said her writing quickly improved. Suddenly, everything started coming together.

“I finally got to a draft that I felt I could show people,” French said, about “The Door to January.”

French sent the manuscript to the Yarmouth-based Islandport Press. She hoped that the book’s setting in rural Maine and her own status as a native Mainer would help open the door to a contract.

Much to her surprise, it did. French signed with Islandport in late 2015, and then signed another contract for a two-book deal with HarperCollins Publishers in 2016.

After 17 years of hard work, it was a dream come true.

“After all this time it was so surreal,” said the full-time writer. “Totally weird, but it’s wonderful.”

French’s first book, “Grit,” was published early in 2017. Her next book “The Lies They Tell” is slated to publish in the spring of 2018.

Now, French’s biggest challenge is finding the time to write while raising two young boys, one three years old and the other eight months old.

“I pretty much have to tuck myself into a corner and just plow,” said French, whose biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers was to “work every day.”

“Even if it’s only for half-an-hour,” she said, “because you’ve got to keep your head in it.”

The other advice she had was to have fun while writing.

“Don’t think too much about if your audience will like it,” she said. “Just push that out of your head and have fun with it and then go back and edit like crazy.”

David Roza

David Roza

Former reporter, David Roza grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and covered news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.

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