Best-selling YA author Maureen Johnson doesn’t believe in ghosts. In fact, when people try to tell her a ghost story—even a good one—she just isn’t interested. So it seems a bit ironic that her new novel can best be described as, well, a very clever ghost story.
On a transatlantic phone call from her second home in Guildford, England (she splits her time between New York City and Guildford, where her English boyfriend lives), Johnson explains how she got the idea for her latest book, The Name of the Star. “I was in London doing some research for [my previous novel] The Last Little Blue Envelope on a historical tour. They kept mentioning ghosts, and I kept thinking, ‘These ghosts are not very good at what they do.’ The ghost is always a cold spot in the room or a shadow; it moves a spoon, or a door creaks. And I thought, what you should have is a ghost that comes back and it’s totally insane and kills everyone! Now that would be something! Then I would sit up and listen to your ghost story.”
Johnson considered what kind of person you really wouldn’t want to come back from the dead—and almost immediately she thought of Jack the Ripper, the infamous serial killer who terrorized London in the late 1880s. Once she had her idea, Johnson was off and running.
The first novel in a planned trilogy, The Name of the Star is inventive, fast-paced and compelling. We meet plucky Louisiana teen Aurora “Rory” Deveaux as she arrives at Wexford, an elite boarding school in London. There has been disturbing news of a local murder, but Rory is too consumed with adjusting to life at Wexford to focus on the slaying. She quickly makes friends with her roommate, Jazza, and starts a flirtation with Jerome, one of the class prefects. Things seem to be going well for Rory—until another woman turns up dead behind a local pub, and police fear they have a Jack the Ripper copycat on their hands.
Johnson says the historical material surrounding the Ripper crimes provided the obvious structure for her story. “I wanted the book to be heavier on the school stuff in the beginning so you would think it was going to be more of a school story,” she explains. “I wanted Rory to get taken out of that world, that you have some idea that her life had been normal—and now it isn’t.”
Normality ends for Rory on the night she sees a suspicious man in the Wexford quad hours before another murder takes place nearby—a man no one else saw. With the guidance of a mysterious new roommate, Rory realizes that she has the ability to see ghosts, and that she just might be the ghost killer’s next victim. Luckily Rory isn’t alone in her struggle—she learns there is a secret ghost police force tracking the killer along with the London police, but she certainly can’t admit that to any of her friends. And so Rory goes from being a typical high school student to a teen on the run from what she thought she knew about herself, the world and the dark forces working against her.
To say much more would ruin the fun of reading Johnson’s spooky novel, but teen readers with an interest in history, mystery and supernatural stories will find much to savor in The Name of the Star.
Johnson says she wanted Rory to come from a town near New Orleans because the Crescent City “has a long history of very eccentric behavior.” With a laugh, she explains, “Some of the most interesting people I have ever met come from New Orleans. And I wanted Rory to have an interesting background. Her family is loosely based on my own family and neighbors, except I think that mine are probably weirder. So Rory is in many ways a filter for me to talk about my relatives.”
Whether she’s channeling her own relatives or not, what’s most striking about Johnson’s writing is her ability to completely inhabit her characters’ voices. Rory, Jazza, Jerome and their friends leap off the page, and readers will be continuously surprised and entertained by their misadventures. About writing from the teen perspective, Johnson admits, “It’s not that I have a particularly teenage mindset. The only thing I do is try to think, what would this be like if you haven’t done it before? The main thing that’s different about being a teenager is that you’re experiencing a lot of things for the first time—that’s the most important logic.”
When asked what Rory will experience in the second book, slated for release in fall 2012, Johnson will only say, “Rory is having to cope with the aftermath of all the things that happened to her. Sometimes in supernatural stories you don’t give people enough time to have the complete nervous breakdown. So she’s in therapy, but she can’t talk about what really happened, so therapy’s a joke. Rory has a complicated life. And things are going to get more complicated.”
Luckily, complications—in Johnson’s capable and creative hands—are something to eagerly anticipate.
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