October 18 & 25, 1999
The New Yorker
POSTCARD FROM CONCORD
A teen-ager with a gift for white magic and dark novels.
They don’t exactly look like a coven—Amelia Atwater-Rhodes and her three friends, locking arms as they walk, their voices overlapping and merging into giggles. It’s a fine Friday morning in Concord, Massachusetts, whose tiny historic center—the green, the white wooden Unitarian church, a salmon-colored Colonial house on the slope of the old British graveyard—still bears a pleasing resemblance to the black-and-white reproductions of its earlier incarnations, posted around town.
The Colonial house is also a landmark of a different kind. “That's Risika’s house!” Amelia says, pointing to it. Boxes are visible through the windows; someone seems to be moving in. But when Amelia was writing her newly published novel, “In the Forests of the Night,” only Risika, her three-hundred-year-old teen-age vampire-protagonist, inhabited it. From the house, Risika could see both the graveyard and the church, which she had attended when she was Rachel, a mortal eighteen-year-old who changed into a vampire in 1702. “Forests” has another teen-age Concord character—Jessaca—who writes what she believes is fiction about vampires, though most vampires regard her creativity as eavesdropping, and her novel as an expose. In Amelia’s forthcoming novel, “Demon in My View,” which will appear next spring, Jessaca publishes her book, and as the vampires read about the details of their lives they begin making plans to “dice the writer into bite-size bits.”
Climbing the hill to the graveyard, Amelia and her friends gab about Aubrey, Caryn, and Sarah—other shapeshifting vampires, witches, and vampire-hunters who populate one or another of Amelia’s novels. It’s a conversation they’ve been having for years—now spiked by gibes about mortal Concord Carlisle High School sophomores, who are sometimes reincarnated in Amelia's writing, complete with fangs.
Amelia is a polite, serious fifteen-year-old with an air of quiet composure. She’s the acknowledged group leader and chronicler, because, as her friend Sara Keleher explains, “she’s just one big ball of strong.” Amelia is five feet one, with a neatly balanced body and straight, shoulder-length nutmeg hair, which in certain lights exacty matches her hazel eyes—the kind of girl who becomes prettier the longer you look at her. She’s wearing a clingy black T-shirt, black jeans, a silver-and-amber ankh pendant, and no makeup. (“I don’t have any hideous scars I have to cover up,” she says.) She and the other girls dress dark and glittery: “witchy,” one might say—sleeker than hippie, nicer than punk, sexier than Goth. At the same time, they insist that clothes are unimportant to them: they dislike the mall, don’t buy designer labels, and, Amelia says, they “have things to discuss besides shoes.”
Amelia lives with her parents in a modest two-story red house, within walking distance of Walden Pond. There's an intense secret-brewing atmosphere as the girls enter their leader’s lair, closing the bedroom door behind them. The small room contains a black-fringed canopy bed, a massive computer, and a magenta lava lamp. There’s a shelf of books—some foreign-language dictionaries (including Spanish and Swahili), a Time-Life volume about life in ancient Egypt (the birthplace of one of Amelia’s vampires), and lots of contemporary horror paperbacks. When I ask Amelia what she reads in school, she says, “You know, ‘classics’ ”—“Raisin in the Sun,” “Great Expectations,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”—books that she finds “long” and “not really interesting” and, in fact, “all the same.”
Although “Forests,” which was issued by Delacorte, a division of Random House, is her first published novel, it’s actually just one of twenty-four novels she has completed. (She has an additional twenty-four “in progress.”) Cubbyholes in her room are filled with black vinyl folders containing the two dozen finished manuscripts, whose pages are illuminated with different-colored markings, where she and her friends have edited and reedited one another’s comments. The twenty-four novels in embryo are stored in her computer.
Jessica Guenther, Andrea Brodeur, and Sara Keleher fell in with one another during middle school, “when people have to form groups to defend themselves,” Amelia says. “No one would come near our lunch table.” During a family excursion to Salem three years ago, she came across a book on Wicca, a revival of the pre-Christian, nature-worshipping religions that caught on with New Age boomers in the seventies and has recently become popular with young women. Soon afterward, the group began calling themselves the Candle-Light Circle and celebrating the full moon and a multicultural mishmash of pagan holidays. They also perform ancient rites, cast spells, and keep a “Book of Shadows,” in which they enter basic witchcraft information, such as the meanings of various herbs, as well as the minutes of their meetings.
“We prefer to be called Wiccan,” Andrea tells me, her beaded braids jingling. “ ‘Witch’ has a negative connotation in our culture.”
“Not all witches are Wiccan,” Sara adds. “Some are Goth.” (Goth, in Amelia’s opinion, is “sort of morbid, sort of boring.”) Sara complains that too many people associate Wicca with Satanists, although “it’s totally unrelated!”
“Last Halloween, we lit candles in front of the house, in a double chalk circle with Norse runes and Phoenician letters,” Amelia recalls. “We did it to show the kids that witchcraft isn’t bad. We tried to invite them into the circle, but most of them were terrified, and ran away and left our candy.”
At her computer, Amelia prints out a seven-page character genealogy, tracing events such as when the Smoke Witch Line was crossed with a different line, which, in turn, is blood-crossed by a vampire-werewolf. It’s a document of stunning complexity: creatures spawning new creatures, most of whom can both shift shapes and time-travel and are therefore apt to remeet or remate or retrospectively kill one another. It will require a dizzying number of books to straighten their histories out. Unless Amelia manages to achieve the immortality of her characters, her imagination has already extended beyond her own life span.
In Amelia’s novels, no one’s ever at home—just the teen-ager alone with the spirits. But at six o'clock there is noise downstairs as Amelia’s mother arrives and the other parents come to fetch their daughters, all of them a year or two short of their driver’s licenses.
Susan Atwater-Rhodes, Amelia’s mother, is a short, energetic woman in her early fifties, with dark curly hair, who works as a vice-principal at Acton-Boxborough High Schoo1. Amelia’s father, William, emerges from his study, where, it turns out, he’s been all along. He’s also in his fifties, with gray-brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, and works as an econometrician doing public-policy consulting. Rachel, an older sister, has just started her freshman year at Wesleyan, but a cousin, Nathan Plummer, who is heading toward a career in musical theatre, also lives with the family. After dinner, he belts out a startlingly good rendition of “The Music of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera,” while Amelia accompanies him on the piano. The house is slightly overrun by five animals, including ferrets; it has the feel of one of those cozy domestic American novels in which a touch of magic realism has been imported. Household objects are spoken of as though they’d been endowed with a little will of their own: Esmeralda, a round-bottomed broom, can sometimes stand upright, unassisted, in the middle of the room—but not at that moment.
In the spring of 1997, Rachel’s tenth-grade English teacher, Tom Hart, offered to read one of her little sister’s novels. Before Hart turned to teaching, he had had a career in publishing, first as an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and then as an agent, representing small literary and sports-related nonfiction books. He wasn’t familiar with horror, let alone young-adult horror, but he recognized Amelia's talent and sent the manuscript off to Delacorte. On her fourteenth birthday, Hart dropped by the house, bringing news of a contract.
By the time “Forests” was published, Amelia’s second book, “Demon,” had been sold, and the contract for a third one is now being finalized. The typical Y.A. novel sells between five and ten thousand copies, primarily to libraries and schools, but “Forests” is being bought by young teens as well. It has already gone through several printings, and there are currently about fifty thousand copies in print. (With her sister’s help, Amelia negotiated an eighty-twenty split with her parents on the proceeds from “Forest,” with the eighty per cent going to a college fund and most of the remaining twenty earmarked for animal charities. At the same time, she retained full rights to her weekly allowance.) No one in the world of young-adult publishing has managed to come up with an analogy to Amelia: other early-teen-age writers simply don’t write coherent multiple-character, time-weaving, metafictional novels.
Though Susan and William are devotees of the horror genre (they describe themselves as “Anne Rice freaks”) and enjoy Amelia’s work, it didn’t strike me that being a writer is an occupation they take especially seriously. And the fact that the craft has been professionally mastered by their adolescent doesn’t seem to have changed their attitude. Susan views her daughter’s writing career the way a parent might view, say, competitive horseback-riding—as a phase. “Amy's a doer, a collector, a person with a million interests,” she says. “She sews, fences, is deep into the Internet, animals, ecology. I guess I would be surprised if in twenty years all she’s doing is writing.” The thought of a movie deal has crossed Susan’s mind, she concedes, but she has dismissed it. “I want to feel O.K. if tomorrow she comes to me and says, ‘Mom, I’m bored with this—I would much rather finger-paint,’ ” she tells me. “I want to be a mother who says, ‘O.K., let’s explore that,’ instead of the mother who says, ‘Oh no! I built my whole future on your Stephen King movie!’ ”
William worries that Amelia’s writing will interfere with her developing the broad-ranging interests and skills—“math as well as communication”—that are necessary for a career in the contemporary world. “What I’m concerned about,” he says firmly, “is that she does her homework.”
Amelia edits her own work according to a couple of basic principles. Once in a while, a line she strikes is “unnecessary,” but usually it’s just not “in character.” Naturally, her characters find themselves in messy situations, but she claims not to “go for the gore.” She burns people alive, but she doesn’t “focus on it.” And when it comes to “flaying someone’s skin off” it’s her opinion that “most people don’t want to know every little single detail.” When she finishes a book, she can tell whether it’s good, because “it sucks you in.”
Amelia has an uncanny understanding of the kind of narrative that makes for a successful potboiler: she’s skilled at creating characters the reader easily and instantly bonds with, and she’s resourceful when it comes to putting them in jeopardy. There’s lots of snappy boy-versus-girl repartee, as well as vicious physical confrontations in which the girl invariably triumphs: “She twisted the knife to make sure his heart was completely destroyed.” Her heroines are isolated in their sleepy town and hellhole high school: “The residents of Ramsa seemed to shy away from Jessaca almost unconsciously. Yet despite her favorable appearance, she had never had so much as a date.” But they’re preoccupied anyway, with seducing and killing vampires and (in a move Buffy could only dream of) choosing whether to become vampires in order to find love.
Arresting language is not a hallmark of Amelia’s novels. They don’t yearn to be literary. They’re suspenseful but not haunting. They take imagination to write, but not to read. On a good day—a day when she wakes up at five and works until ten at night—she can write sixty pages. She wrote the second half of “Forests” in a few days. In the best sense of the word, it shows.
“I don’t outline,” Amelia says. “I don’t draft. I couldn’t teach it. It’s really something that comes to me, not something I’ve learned.” She can’t picture being a full-time writer, because “I need to get away from it,” she says. “Sometimes even I get freaked out by my books.” She would like to work with animals or “teach kids, help with the school musical—fun things,” she says a little wistfully.
Tom Hart tells me that he thinks Amelia may take a break from writing when she goes to college, and then return to it and go on to write serious, realistic literary fiction. I ask Hart what he makes of the fact that the prodigy of Concord has never read a Concord author. He laughs weakly and says, “She will. She will look back on the books she read in class, and she will find one or two that she likes. She’s just like Jo, up in her room writing, writing.”
I recall, though, how earlier in the day Amelia and I had visited the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and I had watched her stride impatiently past the graves of Alcott, Hawthorne, and Emerson. As she settled at the base of a large tombstone, I realized that for her the great authors were actually the least interesting of the remains there because their spirits are the ones that have never died. It was the rest of the graveyard that teemed with possibility—with the kind of unknown spectres she could conjure and employ.
Witchcraft, Amelia likes to stress, is simply “a natural ability” that some humans have developed—“a knack for something, like some people have good balance,” she says. “Someone from thousands of years ago would think it was supernatural if I turned on a light. A lot of times we describe things as supernatural just because we can’t explain them.” She and her friends agree that most of the kids in their high school believe in some form of the paranormal, although, Amelia says, “obviously, some of them don’t have the imagination to believe in anything.” Science hasn’t lost its status at fin-de-siècle Concord Carlisle, bur it seems to coexist more easily in the minds of students with other versions of reality, such as telekinesis. Television shows like “Charmed” and “Bewitched” and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” are also big lunchroom topics. Amelia told me, though, that she was reluctant to see “The Blair Witch Project” because she was wary of a documentary-style Hollywood presentation of witchcraft. But when I invite her and her cousin Nate to accompany me to a screening they’re game. After the movie, over Chinese food, she and Nate debate whether the movie’s killer was a psycho, or a witch employing astral projection, or a “psycho witch.” (“Witches are just as susceptible to mental illness as anyone else,” Amelia explains.) Nate tells an involved story about a protective spirit of some kind that breast-fed his baby sister, Bethany, and a doll that kept finding its way back to the sofa even after he had shut it in a closet. Amelia says that she isn’t afraid of spirits, although, she adds, “I wouldn’t go, ‘Ah, it doesn’t exist,’ go bad-mouthing them. In the same way, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t exist, go bad-mouthing a Greek god. I stay respectful of things that could possibly harm me, but I don’t really worry about them constanty.”
“I know several hundred of them,” she asserts.
Real or imaginary?
“They’d say they’re real. But it’s not like I’m going to meet them for breakfast. Ohhh, bad metaphor,” she says, her voice trailing off at the thought of a vampire’s breakfast.
The “vampyre” is said to have been a persistent presence in the last century because of its adaptiveness—its ability to tap the vein of the individual imagination and draw out the anxieties of the age. Amelia says that what she likes about vampires is their “versatility”; they come in many varieties (with differing sleeping habits, mental powers, and reactions to religion). Still, their defining feature is their immortality, for which they are absolutely dependent on blood-feeding.
“The blood is life,” Nate says, invoking Bram Stoker. Amelia frowns in concentration when I ask what the blood means to her. Finally, she says that the blood represents “different things to different vampires in different contexts.”
Anne Rice is often credited with being the first author to write from the vampire’s point of view, but her vampires—at least, in their personas (gay, male)—are radically different from herself. Amelia, on the other hand, has a disarmingly straightforward identification with her characters. Though vampires are traditionally characterized by their longing for humans, Amelia’s humans are characterized by their jealousy of vampires. In Amelia’s books, characters don’t seem fully alive to their physical or emotional capacities until “the Change.” When the vampire Aubrey asks Jessaca whether she’ll drink his blood, she replies wryly, “You have to ask?”
Amelia is as modest about her witchcraft as she is about her writing. “I only use spells when I believe they’re necessary,” she tells me. “The last spell I cast was during the last full moon. It was time for back to school. I worked out a spell for homework. It’s not that I don’t want to do my homework—it’s that I forget it exists.” She hesitates about showing me the spell, but finally relents. I’m not breaking any confidences to say that it involves cinnamon, because almost all her spells involve cinnamon, which she uses because she likes it and because it works for her. (“It’s not the ingredients, it’s the mind power,” she stresses.) Then she does a complex Tarot reading for me and, finally, a yes-or-no divination, using her amber-eyed ankh.
Twice the pendant swings toward the positive, but then I ask a silent question: “Will this article be published?” Suddenly, the answer is crystal clear: No. Just as I’m falling into gloomy contemplation of the fact that, while we can write the future, the future gets the last word, Amelia gives me a quick glance and scoops the pendant up. She closes her fingers around it, looks back at me, and says, “Don’t worry. The future can be changed. That's why it’s good to know about it ahead of time.”