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Early on in the middle grade horror novel “The Darkdeep,” co-written by Brendan Reichs and Utah author Ally Condie, the cast of characters finds a cave on the shoreline near their town.
Inside the cave is a rowboat, which they use to reach a small island shrouded in mist. And there, they discover a power that can make both their dreams and their nightmares come alive.
Condie recommended that readers who want to experience some of the book’s ambience for themselves check out any kind of cave.
In particular, she recommended the Rock Canyon Trail, a 5.7 mile hike near Provo.
“There are all these little caves and secret places, and kids notice that stuff,” she said.
Condie and Reichs’ book harnesses kids’ cleverness and resourcefulness as their young characters work together to protect their town. Readers will enjoy the vibrant characters, fun pop culture references and a few genuinely spine-tingling moments.
Condie recently spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune about her and Reichs’ writing process and where they took inspiration.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired “The Darkdeep”?
The book was co-authored with Brendan Reichs. We have the same agent and publisher, we went to graduate school at the same time and we have kids that are similar ages. One day we had a conversation where we asked ourselves, “What’s something that we loved when we were kids?” We talked about “Goonies,” which is a bit problematic now, but as kids, a lot of what we loved about it was that the parents weren’t really involved. It was kids solving their own problems, having their own adventures, dealing with some really scary things. And we thought producers kind of recaptured that with “Stranger Things,” which is also set in the 1980s. So we were thinking, “We could write something that feels like those things to us, but for this generation.” Our book is set in modern times, but we wanted to have that feeling of a bunch of kids who really get along, who have each other’s backs, who fight together as a team.
“The Darkdeep” prominently features five kids but alternates perspectives between only two of them. Why did you feel that Nico and Opal were the right characters to experience the story through?
We both wanted to have a character to write because we wanted the book to have distinct voices. We also wanted points of view where you could see what was happening from a couple of different backgrounds. We felt like Nico would be important because he’s the one who has a vested interest in the land, and he’s also getting bullied. With Opal, she’s the insider. She’s the one who’s not getting bullied, she’s a little more involved with the town.
But largely, it was just that they were fun to write. We wanted a boy and a girl, and then we wanted to see what differences they brought to the group. We loved writing the other characters so much, too, that there was a point where we thought maybe they should have chapters written from their points-of-view, but then we realized that would be a total disaster — too many cooks in the kitchen.
Brendan wrote the Nico chapters and I wrote the Opal chapters. Brendan would write a chapter and send it to me, then I’d read it over, write my chapter and send it back. But we wanted it to feel very smooth, so we went over each other’s stuff so much that now we’re not even sure who wrote which lines.
Are there any unique challenges that come with co-authoring a book?
We both had different ideas about where the story might be going or what a character might do in a given situation. If we ran into a spot where we disagreed, sometimes we just came around to the other person’s way of thinking. But if we both felt really strongly about our ideas, then we would throw both away and we had to come up with a third solution together. And that always worked out better. It turns out that if your co-author is not loving what you’re doing, there’s a reason for it, even if nobody can quite put their finger on it.
The book includes a number of pop culture references such as Power Rangers, Minions and the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Did you ever worry that kids wouldn’t get or wouldn’t like certain references?
We totally worried about that. Everything ages so quickly. By the time a book gets published, what’s cool has moved on to something else. So we were trying to think of things that have been around for awhile, that kids have liked for more than a year or two. But we also didn’t want to get too vague, because that’s no fun.
You’re best known for your bestselling young adult dystopian series “Matched.” How does writing for kids differ from writing for teens?
It does in the sense that maybe you’re paying a little more attention to content, but honestly, what you’re trying to do in both cases is tell the story from the character’s point of view. Characters care about the people they love, the things they’re passionate about, where they live, whatever problem they need to solve. So it doesn’t change the writing process. You’re just trying to get into the head of the character.
How did you and Brendan balance the book’s horror elements with age-appropriateness?
We really wanted to hit just the right amount of scary, where it would freak you out a little, maybe keep you up for a minute, but not haunt you forever. We used our kids as guinea pigs a little bit. We’d say, “Hey, what do you think of this? What do you think about that?” And kids are surprising. They’re not easily spooked. They don’t want to it to be dumb-scary.
Without giving anything away, at the end of the book, the kids each have to confront their greatest fears, and that was harder than thinking of the big monsters. We thought, “How do we treat these fears that these kids have with great respect, so that the kids that are reading this will know that their fears are also treated with great respect?” There are things that are fun and scary, but there are also things that are genuinely scary, and the fact that you have fears is totally normal and a human thing to feel.
There are two more books in the “Darkdeep” series. What can readers expect in books two and three?
Book two is super fun because we made everything bigger. There’s a YouTube channel that comes to town to try to investigate what happens in book one, and it was really fun to play into that a little bit because kids are so into online viewing. Then in book three, everything gets kind of global. You get to have bigger explosions and bigger monsters and give the characters bigger problems to solve. So I guess you could say the series gets progressively scarier and more fun.
You’re the founder of the nonprofit WriteOut in Cedar City. How can people get involved?
COVID-19 has hit us like everyone else, so we are trying to get back up on our feet. But what we were doing was running writing camps for rural teens. We did it for three years before COVID-19, and it was super fun. We always maxed out the number of campers we could take. The goal was to get kids from areas that might not get author visits. We’d have five or six writers and we’d workshop with these kids all week long. The kids really got to know us, and we really got to know them and their stories. Most of our campers were from Utah, and 20-25% of our students were always on scholarship. We would use our funding to make sure we were getting kids from Price or Delta or other rural areas.
Are you working on any new projects right now?
I’m working on some young adult books for Penguin, my longtime publisher. I can’t really say what they’re about, but I can say that they’ve been submitted and are with my editor. And then my first picture book will be out in 2023. That’s been really fun because my mom was an illustrator growing up.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Make sure that you’re doing things that are interesting. They don’t have to be interesting to anyone else in the world. If you have a weird hobby or something that nobody else cares about that you love, I think you should explore that. And then I think you should do that on repeat. Any time something that’s interesting to you comes up, go ahead and play with it. Go ahead and learn about it, because it will all be fuel for writing later. If you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to write, but it’s also totally fine — particularly as a young writer — to be in the gathering stage. Gather experiences, gather memories and gather knowledge, and just have fun with it.
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