Pittsburg native and former filmmaker Zoje Stage is a USA Today and international bestselling author of Baby Teeth, Wonderland and now her newest release Getaway. A story where two sisters, Imogen and Beck, and a long-time friend Tilda are hiking in the majestic Grand Canyon’s backcountry. “But as the terrain grows tougher, tensions from their shared past bubble up. And when supplies begin to disappear, it becomes clear secrets aren’t the only thing they’re being stalked by.”
Zoje was kind enough to interview with Grimdark Magazine about her penchant for horror and suspense, writing, and Getaway.
[GdM] What kind of stories inspired you to become a writer? And if it wasn’t a story, what was your journey here?
[ZS] For decades my dream was to be a writer/director of independent films. At the time, I believed that film was the medium that encompassed all of my interests: writing, photography, theatre, etc. Unfortunately, due to finances and health issues, I never achieved in film what I’d hope to do. At the end of 2012 I made the difficult decision to leave my film aspirations behind and see if I could learn to write novels. The kinds of books I write are very similar to the types of movies I wanted to make, with stories that delve into interesting facets of human behavior amid a situation or setting where something weird is going on—naturally or supernaturally. A lot of my creative motivation is in exploring how people react to the strangeness going on around them.
[GdM] You have heavy film and screenplay experience. How does your background affect how you craft scenes for novels? Do you approach them visually? Do you storyboard? What is your process?
[ZS] I still think quite visually, and often an idea for a novel will start with an image or two. It was very challenging when I first switched from filmmaking to writing novels as I had to learn how to create an image entirely with words, while understanding that everyone imagines things differently. It helped that long before I was a filmmaker I wrote poetry, so I had some experience with using language expressively. Now I rather enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to translate the mood, setting, imagery that I see in my head using only the precision of sentences.
[GdM] Your first two novels, Baby Teeth, and Wonderland have supernatural elements to them? Do you find it easier to write a world where the world’s rules are changeable i.e., ones with supernatural elements or ones grounded entirely in reality?
[ZS] I find it much harder to write a world that’s grounded in reality. With Getaway in particular I tried to adhere to the specific geography of the trails and places I named in the Grand Canyon. This necessitated conforming my plot elements to what was physically possible given the terrain. Sometimes it’s a constructive challenge to have certain kinds of restrictions—it can help you stay focused. But I really love the freedom of letting my imagination run wild, which is likely why I’ve always been attracted to writing genres like horror and fantasy.
[GdM] Your stories have various horror aspects, whether psychological, supernatural, or suspense. Do you read horror novels? And if so, what scares you?
[ZS] I’d say my greater passion is for the various ways that suspense resides in a novel, and I read more thrillers and psychological stories than straight horror. I definitely like my horror to “ring true” (no matter how fantastic it may seem): I like to see characters realistically grappling with their situation. I’m pretty hard to scare, and when a book scares me it’s usually moments of off-kilter creepiness.
[GdM] Do you find writing a therapeutic outlet?
[ZS] I’ve maintained for a long time that writing is how I process the world. I swear sometimes I don’t know what I truly feel or think about something until I have a chance to sit down and write about it.
[GdM] Having released two novels amidst the pandemic, Wonderland released in 2020 and now Getaway in 2021, how has the experience of releasing differed as an author from that of Baby Teeth in 2018?
[ZS] Releasing books during a pandemic has been very difficult, on multiple fronts. There’s the business aspect: people are not necessarily as plugged into things like new book releases as they once might have been, and are concerned about their finances in a changing world. With Baby Teeth I was just getting the hang of making public appearances as an author…and then it all came to an end. Virtual events are wonderful in certain ways, but I often end up feeling quite disconnected. In many ways it feels like Wonderland, especially, was released into a black hole. My sense of these books being “published” doesn’t feel completely real, although this time around I’ve gotten to see Getaway in a number of bookstores (always a thrill!).
[ZS] It’s been a very strange year and a half, to say the least. Like many people, my ability to concentrate was impaired for quite a while and I was more inclined to write short pieces—poetry, essays, short stories. I am back to work now, though I still experience bouts of existential malaise. Everything seems very uncertain, which makes it hard to feel grounded and in a solid, safe place. Writing is always the thing that keeps me sane, but it takes a bit more willpower now.
[GdM] In an interview from a few years ago, you mentioned in jest that people won’t know who someone is as a writer until their third book. You went on to say, Baby Teeth has a very internal story with tight relationships. Wonderland has a very strong external element, but your third book has very tight relationships within an external environment. This brings me to the question about your third, recently released book, Getaway. Can you tell me a bit about it?
[ZS] Getaway is about a trio of thirty-something women (two of them sisters) who have been friends since high school. Over the years life and distance have pulled them in different directions and their bonds with each other are fraying. Worse, our hero Imogen has experienced some life traumas that make it increasingly hard for her to function well in the world. Her sister devises a Grand Canyon backpacking trip in an effort to help the three of them get re-connected, and hopes the magnificent environment will help Imogen heal. But soon into their adventure they meet someone very unfortunate, and their vacation goes awry.
On the surface, Getaway looks like an adventure thriller, but I think it’s equally a tale of psychological suspense. The characters find themselves in a situation that tests every ounce of their physical and moral resolve and because Imogen perceives herself as small and weak, her survival strategy becomes more internal and psychological.
[GdM] I read your inspiration for a Getaway was a camping experience with your family as a child. Can you elaborate on that?
[ZS] Getaway, indeed, has its origins in an odd encounter I had with my family on a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. We were in a remote area called Salt, where one party at a time was permitted to camp. I was in my teens, and in my emotionally-colored memory of it a haggard fellow appeared out of nowhere, wearing a pistol in a hip holster.
My dad and sister remembered it more accurately: he wasn’t carrying a gun, but he did mention that he’d recently gotten out of prison and was just “wandering around.” He also remarked that, upon crossing paths with a lone female ranger, he realized he could’ve picked up a rock and bashed her in the head and no one would ever know.
Needless to say the incident at Salt stuck with me through the years, as it marked the first time that being in nature carried a hint of human danger. After that, I was always more paranoid, especially when it was just me and my sister camping somewhere deserted, off-season. In my family’s story, the man walked on. Getaway explores the “what if” of a trio of backpackers who aren’t so lucky.
[GdM] Getaway doesn’t fit into any category or genre. There are elements of relationship discussion and familial strife, dealing with psychological turmoil, psychological suspense, survival, and even horror. Do you think that genre labeling is helpful for authors or a hindrance?
[ZS] For better or worse, I don’t think about genre when I write. While I endeavor to write dark and suspenseful books, more specific labels feel very restrictive to me. Labels exist primarily for marketing reasons—who is the audience, where is the book going to be shelved—but I think it affects how some readers approach a book. For instance, some readers have biases toward certain genres and won’t read things that are labeled in categories they believe they don’t like. On the flip side, some readers have extremely specific ideas about what a label like “horror” should mean, and if a book doesn’t conform to that they may be disappointed. For both of these reasons I always wince a little when my books are labeled, but I guess “dark and suspenseful” isn’t an official genre.
[GdM] In the prologue of Getaway, we meet Imogen and her experience with a shooting that happened in a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many of the feelings that Imogen experiences, “What could I have done?” and survivor’s guilt, is felt by victims of traumatic experiences. Imogen’s experiences wrang with authenticity. Did you do any specific research into this particular type of PTSD?
[ZS] I have experienced a very different sort of trauma than Imogen’s but because of my own experience it was important to me to create a character who was complex and relatable. As part of my own effort to understand trauma it was very helpful to read Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine. I do truly believe that as sensitive beings in a violent and uncertain world most—if not all—of us are living with trauma, even if we don’t realize it. I believe society itself is a product of trauma, and the more we damage our world and each other the more prevalent trauma becomes.
[GdM] I know that you are from Pittsburgh, specifically the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that had a similar shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in 2018. Is your connection to this area the source of inspiration for this prologue?
[ZS] It is. The Tree of Life shooting took place just blocks from my then-apartment. It was a very shocking and frightening morning, made even more memorable by having a Baby Teeth event to go to, which I’d considered canceling (but didn’t). I felt the repercussions of that incident in my neighborhood for months and months afterward. There were reminders in every storefront window: posters of the names of everyone who’d been killed; Stars of David dangling from every tree and parking meter. It was both poignant and hard to see all the time.
[GdM] The locations and scenes in Getaway play a more significant role than just as a space that characters move through, often seen in novels. They almost seem like they are characters themselves. Was that intentional? Or, was that how the writing evolved because you described something that had to be incredibly difficult to explain?
[ZS] The setting of everything I write is an integral part of my books. Baby Teeth would feel completely different if Suzette didn’t obsessively clean her already perfect prison of a house. Wonderland needs not just the isolation of the family’s new Adirondacks home, but the beauty and danger that manifests in extremely wintry conditions. Getaway picks up on those wilderness themes—beauty and danger—but in the context of being so deep in the Grand Canyon’s desert backcountry that the characters can’t consider any survival strategies beyond their own wit. The place they’d come for a back-to-nature vacation becomes hostile territory, almost an inescapable fortress. I think by necessity—and by its inherent awesome presence—the Grand Canyon feels very “alive” in this book, and even when the characters feel trapped and afraid they’re never unaware of the beauty around them.
[GdM] Can you tell us a bit about the other characters in the novel? We meet Imogen in the prologue, but who are the other characters who will share this journey with Imogen?
[ZS] Imogen’s life has made her somewhat paranoid and cautious, but she has a rich imagination—which Beck and Tilda think she relies on too much. Beck, Imogen’s older sister, lives a stable life with her equally successful wife. Imogen would describe her sister’s need to “fix everyone” as annoying, but it’s probably why Beck became a physician. Their friend Tilda was always a bit of a showwoman, so her life path took her from doing high school musicals to auditioning for American Idol. She’s made a career as a motivational speaker and influencer. At one point while writing Getaway I realized I’d chosen career paths for my three women where they were each basically their own boss. There is another character…but for the sake of avoiding spoilers I will let readers discover that on their own.
[GdM] Familial relationships are significant in Getaway, both born of blood and those relationships that happen when a friend becomes lifelong family. Do you think the mental growth and mending these characters had at the end of the story could have been achieved had the trip gone on without a hitch?
[ZS] Absolutely not. If everything had gone according to plan, perhaps Imogen and Tilda would have developed some new respect for each other—and then they would’ve gone right back to their old ways. I’ve thought a lot over the years about the impact of difficult situations—how soldiers bond on the battlefield. It can be true even for less traumatic circumstances, such as an arduous backpacking trip that goes according to plan. But part of what we do as novelists is put our characters through the worst things they can endure, to test their inner resolve in the hopes of learning something vital about themselves. Part of the magic of a book is that evolution can be experienced in condensed time, whereas in real life we’re learning and changing over a span of years.
[GdM] To hearken back to a previous question about getting to know a writer through their books? What is on the horizon for you? What can you say about your next novel?
[ZS] I believe come 2022 readers will get to see my first published novella, called (at least for now) The Girl Who Outgrew the World. As a dark yet whimsical fairy tale it’s a little “off brand” for me, but it is dear to my heart. It’s about an eleven-year-old girl, Lilly, who has an inexplicable growth spurt. When her father and doctors decide to take drastic action to curb her dangerous growth, Lilly runs away—and embarks on a journey to discover her true self. In the spirit of fairy tales, the story works on two levels and TGWOTW is also a parable for how patriarchy reacts to and treats, the female body.
I’ve also recently finished a new novel, but it’s at a delicate stage at the moment so I can’t say too much about it except that it’s an adult mother/daughter story, very psychological, a little batshit crazy.
[GdM] Are you reading something exciting right now? I had heard that you loved Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay. I, too, cried when I read it as well as Cabin at the End of the World. They are gut-punches of novels.
[ZS] I love both of those novels! I’ve read some great books this year—Cackle by Rachel Harrison, Don’t Look For Me by Wendy Walker, Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari, Rovers by Richard Lange. At the top of my reading pile right now are These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall, and The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward.