‘As a writer, I can control scenarios that terrify me’: 21 Questions with Tracy Sierra

The author of Nightwatching explains why writing thrilling reads helps her own anxieties and the James Joyce novel she rereads at the first sight of snow.

Described as ‘the most gripping thriller I have ever read’ by Gillian McAllister, debut novelist Tracy Sierra has been gaining a host of fans. Nightwatching is a fast-paced thriller that follows a mother home alone with her children who, after hearing an unfamiliar creek on the stairs, has a split second to decide what to do and how to survive. The result? A read so chilling you’ll gulp it down in one sitting and think about it for much longer.

To mark the book’s release we asked Sierra our 21 questions about life and literature, from spooking her friends with scary stories as a child to her strange interaction with author Hunter S Thompson.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

It’s difficult to rank of course, but I deeply admire Dostoevsky. Books like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are remarkably plotted page-turners that simultaneously deal empathetically with major social issues of the time as well as universal struggles.

His life was punctuated by extraordinary difficulties – nearly executed for circulating banned books, imprisoned for years in Siberia, a gambling addiction, just to name a few – and yet he somehow managed to produce prolific yet beautiful work.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
I adored Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a collection of frightening stories for kids with absolutely terrifying black and white ink artwork. I got in quite a bit of trouble recounting these stories and making up my own, inspired by the book, at sleepovers. Other parents complained to mine when their kids wouldn’t sleep in the nights after.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
I had an incredible English teacher in high school, who had my American Studies class read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I absolutely loved it. Hilarious, prescient, and it broke rules I hadn’t even realised were out there.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Is it too obnoxious to say my own? While many authors don’t like to discuss it, most of us have novels wilting away in a drawer that we wrote before our debut found a public home.

There’s no mystery why. Novel writing requires practice. To get decent at anything, you first have to fail. But to put in the hours, work, the lessons learned, and finally get the news that, yes, your book will be out in the world? That has been absolutely life-changing, and there’s not a minute I’m not intensely grateful.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I interviewed to work part-time with a friend at The Washington Post. I eagerly agreed before learning he worked for the sports section. Chronically uncoordinated, I’ve never had any interest whatsoever in sports, but somehow finessed my way through the interview.

The completely foreseeable but regrettable consequence of this was that I found myself taking box scores over the phone without having a single clue what it meant and cobbling together short-form game descriptions about sports I’d never watched.

I worked there for two years and, by some miracle, my utter lack of interest, experience, or knowledge was never found out.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Everyone told me that you can’t wait for timing or conditions to be perfect to have a child. Personally, I think that advice is even more applicable to writing. Your circumstances will never be ideal to be creative. You simply need to set time aside and get words on the page.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I have a number of friends who are incredible writers, insightful readers, and they love Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’ve started it several times but always end up putting it down a couple chapters in (I hope they don’t read this. The guilt is very real).

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

An attorney. Otherwise, it would be a waste of the law degree.

What makes you happiest?

There’s nothing better than being outdoors with my two kids and my husband. Hiking, skiing, anything at all. Somehow being in motion always leads to quality time.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I’m far from fashion forward but, growing up, my parents owned a shoe store. I spent my childhood helping out. This has left me with an encyclopedic knowledge and deep love of shoes, that borders on obsession. Luckily, my feet are a very unusual, difficult-to-fit size, or else I wouldn’t stay solvent.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

A quiet house. The ultimate parental luxury.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

As a teenager I met Hunter Thompson when I was working in my parents’ shoe store. I fetched the shoes he’d pointed at after he tersely told me his size and, after working up my courage, blurted out how much I admired his work. I was incredibly nervous; in person he was remarkably imposing: a very tall guy wearing a big silver necklace and a big hat.

If you’ve ever seen an interview with him, especially in his later years, you know he had a very unique way of speaking. He began talking, clearly responding to my compliment at length and I just cluelessly nodded and smiled because I could understand, at best, one out of every ten words he was saying. So very awkward. But he bought the shoes, so I guess I didn’t embarrass myself too horribly.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Mary Shelley. Can you imagine the gossip? And I’d serve something vegetarian of course!

What’s your biggest fear?

I write scary stories in part because they help me excise my anxieties. As a writer I’m able to control scenarios that terrify me, which I find helpful. All to say, it’s impossible to rank my fears because they are a legion. But at base all my fears revolve around the possibility of danger to my loved ones, especially my children. That’s always and forever the ultimate nightmare in all its infinite forms.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I think telekinesis would be great, but it’s a bit of a cheat. If you can move things with your mind, you could move yourself and be able to fly. You can do hundreds of things at once. Imagine the efficiency!

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months? 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It’s so elegant, short, and precise, yet somehow Moss manages to deftly examine the dangers of nostalgia, tribalism, misogyny, racism, control, and so much more. Her scene-setting is gorgeous. The plot is absolutely consuming. A masterclass.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

I’m a massive, massive fan of my e-reader so absolutely not. I’d either somehow electrocute myself, or regularly need to buy a new device because of water damage.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

I start my day with a whole pot of coffee, switch to caffeinated tea around 11 a.m. and by about 4 p.m. I’m onto herbal tea. I love it all.

Down to the sentence level, the writing is evocative and beautiful, bringing every scene to emotional life. The structure, twists, and genre-blending are completely original. Gorgeous, terrifying, and utterly devastating, it’s one of those rare books that I think can change not just minds but hearts.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I’m often home alone with my children and my house is isolated, no neighbours visible. The fear of an intruder became an idea I needed to poke at, simply because it frightened me.

The house in the novel is based on my own home here in New England, which is 300 years old and, visually, an old home is very fertile ground for a scary story’s setting!

Finally, years ago in law school, I volunteered at a clinic that helped survivors of domestic violence obtain temporary protective orders. It was fascinating, though disturbing, how frequently family members, friends, and authorities dismissed women’s (in my time volunteering, all the clients were women) stories, often despite visible evidence they were telling the truth.

That experience made me want to examine who we grant the benefit of the doubt and why. In our quest to convince ourselves we’re safe (which I think is the main driver of why so many of us consume true crime), we can unwittingly blame crime victims or survivors for what was done to them. I therefore wanted to create a story completely focused on the target rather than the perpetrator of a crime, and bring to vivid life what it might be like to be that person – because bad things can happen to anyone.

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