The seed for Ana Reyes' first novel "The House in the Pines" came to her as a child, an image she held on to for years. It's an image that anchors the book, that of a cabin in the woods.
But there's more to this cozy-seeming image in Reyes' novel, a thriller that includes the mysterious deaths of several young women, a charming man who may be behind the murders, and a flawed main character struggling with painkiller withdrawal, based on the author's own experience. Living in Los Angeles, Reyes was prescribed Klonopin for sleep, but in a new city, with a new doctor, she was cut off from the medication suddenly and treated like a criminal as she struggled through sudden and confusing benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.
The main character of "The House in the Pines," Maya, is in the throes of similar withdrawal — and trying to solve a crime while no one believes her. After seeing news footage of a young woman who dies suddenly at a diner while sitting at a table before a man, Maya is thrust back into the past and the unsolved death that haunts her. Her childhood best friend Aubrey died as a teenager under similar circumstances, and in the presence of the very same man: Frank, a charming and toxic figure. Did Frank kill these girls without touching them? Did he kill others?
Salon talked to Reyes about scary stories, believability and withdrawal — and the news that "The House in the Pines" is the latest selection for Reese Witherspoon's Book Club.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
I read an interview where you said that "The House in the Pines" was written because of something that you dreamed, an image that that came to you. Could you describe that image?
It was sort of built around the house. And it wasn't in a dream, exactly, but I wrote about this house in the first story that I ever wrote when I was 11 years old, for a contest at the public library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It's the same house that appeared on the page over 20 years later, when I sat down to write the novel. It's been this image that's been in the back of my mind for a very long time. I ended up building the novel around that image.
The image is both comforting and really sinister at the same time once we learn more about it.
Exactly. That's definitely what I was going for, that dark side of nostalgia.
Something else that's important in the book is a friendship between two girls. You go back and forth from the past to the present day and their friendship anchors the book. How did you create that closeness and that bond between the two characters?
I thought back on some of my own friendships at that age and a little older. I had really close friends around that time, and I think that that bond was something that felt very natural to me was, writing about these two friends. I also wanted to make sure that was on the page, so it would land with more impact since we know that Aubrey's dead at the beginning. That's not a spoiler — we know she's dead. I think that I did my best to make you care about her so that that would matter.
"What were the last weeks of her life like? What were the choices that she made in her final days that might have led up to what happened?"
The structure is interesting, too, because we have very short chapters at times. Was that a conscious choice? Was that your original structure, to have both the past and the present day? Or, did it evolve as you wrote?
That absolutely evolved. As I wrote, it started off almost entirely in the present day with flashbacks here and there. But as I wrote the flashbacks, and as I got feedback from readers from the workshops that I was in, when I was writing the book as my thesis, I realized that people were interested in the backstory. The friendship was an important part of the story that people were interested in seeing on the page — and I was interested in writing it.
And I also felt, because we know that Aubrey is dead pretty early on, I thought it would be interesting to show what were the last weeks of her life like? What were the choices that she made in her final days that might have led up to what happened? I just felt there was a lot there to mine this question of a person who you know they're going to die. It lends a level of gravity to what you're seeing them do in their final weeks, days and then hours.
How did you create the character of Frank?
"There's something extra scary about something when it could actually happen to you."
Frank was always a very manipulative character who evolved a lot over the course of the writing. This book took me seven years to write. It started out as my thesis in the MFA program at LSU. The first Frank that I wrote wasn't as manipulative. He wasn't as skilled and powerful as the Frank that appears in the book. He was kind of a little bit more morally ambiguous — and also more magical. But as the story evolved, he became smarter and more of a villain, I think. The things that he does are more grounded in reality, ultimately,
Which in a way probably makes it scarier.
I think so. That's what I was hoping. There's something extra scary about something when it could actually happen to you, even if it's not likely. It could happen.
I'm glad you brought up manipulation as one of Frank's tools. Did you study cult leaders or "bad men" in history to help form Frank?
I really didn't. It was more in response to the twist of the book, which I knew from the beginning would require somebody who was exceptionally manipulative. I read "Helter Skelter" when I was probably too young, so I did have an interest in that kind of manipulative, evil genius. So that was very intriguing to me. But, a lot of what Frank does evolved in response to the twist of the book. Which I knew going in was always part of the story.
You mention growing up in Pittsfield. Are there other aspects of the novel that are based on your life, real experiences woven into the book?
[The main character]'s half Guatemalan — Maya — and I am, too. So a lot of her character development has to do with understanding her past because her father was dead when she was born. She never got to know him, and she never got to really connect with that side of her culture. That's part of her journey as a character in the book. And that was certainly something that I thought about as I was writing, about how I too had never been to Guatemala. And thank God, my dad is alive. But I didn't go to Guatemala with him until I was 17. So that aspect of: you grew up hearing about a place but not really knowing it your whole life. And then when you go there, how does the reality of the place match your expectation? A lot of that was based upon my own experience completely.
It makes sense to hear you say that because the house becomes so important in the book to Maya, having this place. A comforting place that she knows.
Absolutely. That was a really important theme.
Maya also struggles with withdrawal from painkillers and with drinking, which helps make her real. Do you think it's important for it for characters to be imperfect, even our main character?
"Is it possible that this man who she thinks killed her best friend could have actually done it even though he never touched her, there's no proof?"
I do. I think that for me that was also important because I had dealt with Klonopin withdrawal. That was something that I was able to write about — it was actually very helpful to me to write about it. But as I was writing, I thought: Oh, this is actually a good way to make her unreliable, because I did want there to be a question of her reliability, and is it possible that this man who she thinks killed her best friend could have actually done it even though he never touched her, there's no proof, there's no evidence at all that he killed her? So I wanted it to be up in the air about if she was right, or if this was all a result of Klonopin withdrawal, which can make you feel very unstable and just very disoriented.
You write about the withdrawal so vividly. Maya's struggles with believability also seem to relate to what it's like being a woman and not being believed, continually having your story be distrusted.
That sort of emerged as a theme as I went on. But as I wrote about it, this idea of women being believed ended up becoming very important. I thought a lot about that as I drafted and developed the story.
How did you find out your book had been selected for Reese's Book Club?
"Every time I wanted to tell someone, I would just imagine Reese Witherspoon being disappointed. That would be enough to keep me quiet."
I got a call an email from my editor asking me to set up a Zoom with her the following day. I had no idea what she wanted to talk about. It could have been good, could have been bad. It was with her and my agent. And they just told me. I was shocked. I was like: how, how? I still don't know how they even got it to [Reese Witherspoon]. I don't know how it happened. When they told me I was just utterly shocked, and then I had to keep it secret, which was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But every time I wanted to tell someone, I would just imagine Reese Witherspoon being disappointed. That would be enough to keep me quiet.
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Are you working on a new book?
I am working on a new book. I haven't told anyone about it yet, but it is another thriller. And I'm really excited about it because I feel like writing the first book took me a long time because I was partially figuring out how to write a book. There was a lot of trial and error. I also had to sort of figure out how to make the story creepy and scary. But I've learned so much from that book, I feel like the second one is coming out creepier from the beginning.