An Interview with Carissa Orlando

The September House

Last Updated on July 11, 2024

Who better to write psychological horror than someone who has studied and seen all the nuances of the human psyche? Carissa Orlando is the debut author of The September House, out from Berkeley this September, in which a woman is faced with an unusual haunted house and layers upon layers of secrets.

Cover for The September House by Carissa OrlandoShe spends her days as a clinical psychologist ensuring children and teens have access to the mental health care they need and her nights writing. A long-time devotee of the macabre, it was only a question of time until she merged her understanding of human nature with her love for horror, drawing on the darkest sides of the psyche. Grimdark Magazine had the pleasure to catch up with her about The September House, her background and writing process.

[GdM] What inspired you to become a writer?

[CA] I’ve always been somewhat imaginative, and my brain is constantly making up and running with little stories. This was true even when I was a kid—creating vast worlds for my action figures and writing little comic strips about my favorite toys. It was only logical that I start to write down the strange, rambling creations I conjure up. Otherwise, they’re just taking up space in my brain, and there’s already too much detritus up there as it is.

[GdM] Are there particular elements that define what a horror story is to you? If so, what are they?

[CA] This is a question to which I can see my answer changing over the years! For right now, however, I think my answer is fairly simple: a horror story has to bring the frights. It doesn’t matter what the themes are, who the characters are, or what the plot is, a true horror story is one that will send a shiver down a reader’s spine and have them thinking twice before stepping foot in a dark room later that night. Truly, I don’t need much out of my horror stories—just scare me!

[GdM] What scares you? Are there any ideas that you would love to explore?

[CA] I’m an anxious person, so all sorts of objectively boring things terrify me. Unexpectedly running into someone I know in public—a literal nightmare. Being texted we need to talk with no context—actual panic attack. Cockroaches—kill with fire. One day, I would love to write a novel that translates the anxious brain into something understandable and horrifying for the rest of the population as well. There’s something about that that seems fun and incredibly satisfying.

[GdM] Can you tell us about your new novel, The September House?

[CA] The September House tells the story of Margaret, a woman who currently lives in the house of her dreams. There’s just one, tiny flaw—the house just so happens to be haunted. Very haunted. Still, Margaret is determined to live peacefully with her formerly-living roommates—pranksters, as she calls them—and has developed a set of rules for surviving in her house of horrors. She has no intentions of fighting back, even when the paranormal events worsen each September, and definitely not against the creature who lives in the basement. Then Margaret’s husband, Hal, vanishes. Their estranged daughter, Katherine, insists on coming to visit to look for Hal, unaware that the house is haunted. Margaret’s priority is to keep Katherine safe, a difficult task with September starting. As Katherine’s search for her father turns up distressing findings, Margaret is at a loss on how to protect her daughter not only from the pranksters in the now but from the past she so desperately wanted to keep in the then.

[GdM] I understand you are a big fan of horror stories. What attracted you to the haunted house trope?

[CA] I’m not even sure I can fully articulate what it is about them, but I just love haunted house stories. I love them. I love all the tropes—the screaming and the bleeding and the formerly-living residents and the monsters in the basement and the immense metaphoric potential. I love a good metaphoric potential. Also, there is something so fantastically lovely about ghosties and goblins coming to get us in the place where we live and eat and sleep, the place where our family is, the place where we’re supposed to be the safest of all. The fright in that is so universal, and it makes my twisted little heart deliriously happy.

[GdM] You have a doctorate in psychology; how has your education helped your creation of characters?

[CA] I’ve been studying and practicing psychology for over a decade now, and it is oftentimes the lens through which I view the world. My background certainly shaped the novel in many ways, although not all of them are spoiler-free! One of the many, many lessons I’ve taken from my career is that every person’s actions, no matter how perplexing they are at face value, are completely understandable once you learn a bit about the person and their context. I feel that I took that lesson into the characters in this novel—Margaret definitely engages in a lot of behaviors that readers might not choose for themselves (electing to stay in a house full of ghosts, for example). However, this all makes perfect sense for Margaret and who she is as a person. Margaret makes a great deal of sense, even when she makes no sense at all. As do we all.

[GdM] The September House is your debut. Has the process of writing from start to a finished novel been surprising?

[CA] The most surprising thing thus far is just how many steps there are to the publication process. I sold The September House towards the end of 2021, and my friends and family were all a little confused to hear that it wouldn’t be out on bookshelves for nearly two years. It all makes sense now: that time is filled with countless little steps along the way—revisions and copyedits and proofreading and more proofreading and formatting and re-formatting and decisions upon decisions upon decisions! All sorts of people put their brains and eyeballs onto the thing to be sure that, once it is out in the world, the book is as close to perfect as it could be. Between myself, my agents at Folio, and all the wonderful folks at Berkley, taking this story from manuscript to publication has truly been the very definition of a team effort!

[GdM] How do you balance writing with other aspects of your life, such as work or family? I read in the acknowledgments that you have quite a support system of family and friends.

[CA] Not needing a lot of sleep is pretty helpful. Also, I recommend keeping hobbies to a minimum.

In all honesty, I am grateful to have supportive people in my life, particularly my spouse, who doesn’t mind me disappearing behind my laptop for hours on end, hearing the questionable little factoids I’ve learned in my research for a horror novel, or being asked to read the fourth iteration of an ending to the same story yet again.

[GdM] Speaking of characters, can you tell us about Margaret? Was she difficult to write? Did you have any particular inspiration that helped create her?

[CA] Sometimes when writing, I am blessed with having characters show up knowing exactly who they are and what they want to do, and Margaret was one of those characters. She arrived fully-formed, and all I really had to do was write her down. There is a lot that I love about Margaret. She is near-impossible to rattle, is pragmatic and no-nonsense, and is delightfully unimpressed by her own tremendous ability to survive. She is completely willing to do whatever it is she must, sometimes to a fault. And of course, Margaret has her flaws. She has a superficiality to her, has learned when it’s best to keep her head in the sand, and sometimes her understanding of reality isn’t quite in line with what is actually real. Do her actions always make sense? To her, yes. To others, not so much. God bless her, though—she tries her best.

[GdM] One of the things that were so remarkable about how you wrote The September House is how blasé you wrote Margaret’s attitude. Can you tell us a little about Margaret’s reaction to the house?

[CA] When we meet Margaret, Margaret’s attitude towards the horrors of the house is the exact opposite of that of any other character who has found themselves in a haunted house story—complete indifference. Margaret refuses to be driven out of her home by some paranormal pranksters and has, over time, developed a series of functional but not entirely foolproof rules for surviving in the house relatively unscathed. After all, this is all old hat for Margaret—she’s been through all sorts of things at this point in her life, and she knows how to adapt, to survive. Heck, compared to all that, living in this house might just be a cakewalk.

[GdM] The ghosts that haunt the house on Hawthorne Street are memorable, to say the least; how did you choose how they would manifest and why?

[CA] When I initially came up with the concept for the book, I wanted Margaret’s house to be the most haunted of haunted houses. Every way a house can be haunted, I wanted it to happen in Margaret’s house. Thus, I threw pretty much every haunted house gimmick I could think of at Margaret, just to watch her roll with it. Bleeding walls—check. Screaming at night—check. Invasions of flies and birds—check. Ghostlike, horrifying former residents who may or may not mean harm—check. Terrifying basement that definitely means harm—double check. No haunted stone was left unturned!

[GdM] Did the story end up where you thought it would when you first started writing it?

[CA] It did not, and literally so! When I first developed my plan for the story, it had a completely different but not particularly satisfying (to avoid spoilers) ending. Midway through, I had an idea for an even better ending, although even that didn’t quite hit the right notes once all was said and done. After feedback and support from a bunch of people, I was able to get to the ending readers will see in the book, which I personally enjoy the heck out of. I remember being physically excited when I wrote the first draft of what is essentially the current ending—heart pounding, giggling, excited—and that was when I knew that this novel was going to end in a place that was both satisfying and memorable!

[GdM] What do you hope readers take away from The September House?

[CA] If you see a gorgeous, well-maintained Victorian house on the market for a surprisingly low price, maybe check for bodies.

Read The September House by Carissa Orlando

Buy this book on Amazon

This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine issue #35.

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Elizabeth Tabler

Elizabeth Tabler

Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is constantly immersed in fantasy stories. She was at one time an architect but divides her time now between her family in Portland, Oregon, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and is on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5. You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other. Find her on: instagram.com/elizabethtabler https://beforewegoblog.com/ https://www.pinterest.com/scottveg3/ https://www.goodreads.com/Scottveg3 https://twitter.com/BethTabler

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