Expect supernatural events and at least one "ruthless" surprise in Squirrel Hill writer Zoje Stage's latest novel Wonderland | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Expect supernatural events and at least one "ruthless" surprise in Squirrel Hill writer Zoje Stage's latest novel Wonderland

click to enlarge Zoje Stage - PHOTO: GABRIANNA DACKO
Photo: Gabrianna Dacko
Zoje Stage
In Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, the Squirrel Hill resident wrote about a seven-year-old mute girl, Hanna, who tries to kill her mother. In her second book, Wonderland (Mulholland), a nine-year-old girl, Eleanor Queen, communicates with a voice from the past.

In both stories, the youthful characters have trouble expressing themselves about things only they can see and feel. And both characters share at least one aspect of Stage’s childhood.

“I remember very strongly how misunderstood I felt as a child,” says Stage, “and how hard I tried to make myself understood, and I just couldn’t.

“And the other part of it is, I feel like kids are very sensitive and very receptive. Because they haven’t mastered language, like with Hanna, or mastered how the world works, it’s very hard for them — because they have a different perspective of what’s normal — to make anybody understand them.”

Stage will have a virtual book release for Wonderland, hosted by Mystery Lovers Bookshop, on Tue., July 14.

Wonderland takes readers to the edge of a reality where supernatural events seem more than plausible. The Bennett family — Orla, a former ballerina; her husband Shaw, an aspiring artist; and their two children, Eleanor Queen and Tycho — has just relocated from New York City to a remote home in Upstate New York, where the nearest neighbor is a mile away.

Almost as soon as the family arrives, there are sudden shifts in the weather patterns, including a snowstorm that leaves the family stranded, then suddenly melts. The sky lights up with an aurora borealis display, even though the geographic location is too far south for the phenomenon. A tree line starts to move closer to the small house. And Eleanor Queen starts to hear a voice that leads the family into danger.

Stage says Hanna was “the child of my heart” in her first novel, but it’s Orla, the mother, who is the emotional nexus of Wonderland.

“I have to have some strong emotional connection, and [to feel] that their story needs to be told, and I want to tell that story," says Stage. "So, I think if I didn’t identify with at least one character in a very strong way, I wouldn’t even sell the book. That’s kind of the starting place.”

As in Baby Teeth, Stage employs her background as a playwright and filmmaker in the new novel. But the remote, pristine setting of Wonderland, as opposed to the city tableau of the previous book, gives her the opportunity to be more creative.

“One of the things I got into the habit of doing when I was writing screenplays is that I would envision a scene,” she says. “I still approach novels that way. Since you can’t see it on a screen, I want readers to be as immersed in that world as if they were watching something, so they feel that they’re there.”

Stage also has a trait that is crucial to success in the thriller/mystery genre: She’s completely ruthless, willing to ditch sentimental attachments to characters in service to the story. Without giving too much away, readers of Wonderland will be shocked by at least one surprising plot element that is impossible to foresee, but necessary for the story.

“Honestly, that’s a really hard thing as a writer,” Stage says. “Believe me, I’ve done early drafts of books where I don’t go as far as I need to go because I want to be nice to the characters. I don’t want them to suffer. And that at some point I say, ‘I can’t protect these characters, they just need to suffer because it’s the only way to tell the story.’ I definitely cry for my characters sometimes, but it’s the only way to do it.”

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