Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Tonya Hurley
Tonya Hurley left for New York City the day after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh—with a concentration in writing, music, and filmmaking—taking only a jar of peanut butter and her twin sister Tracy. Their first bold move was camping out all night for SNL tickets. There they met the people who would become their tribe—Zach Galifianakis, A.D. Miles, and Tamara Pajic Lang, all are still friends. Hurley went on to study screenwriting at New York University and stop motion animation at the School of Visual Arts, strengthening the foundation of her multi-discipline, multi-faceted career. A career including success as an independent filmmaker with films shown at top festivals and broadcast on PBS and IFC; creative director for the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen brand; publicist for superstar musicians and actors; TV commercial director, and at times: a co-creator, co-producer, co-writer of various TV shows for kids and teens. Not to mention the bestselling author of ghostgirl series and The Blessed trilogy! Hurley has the ability and determination to conquer all she surveys -with style!
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
TH: Me: When I was growing up, we didn’t have much money. I would check Where the Wild Things Are out of the library every week. On the last day of school, my librarian, Ms. Miden, gave me the book as a gift. I had memorized the words by then, and so I spent that summer with masking tape over the words and making up my own stories to the illustrations. That is my first memory of storytelling, and I owe it all to my librarian. She singled me out, and made me feel special. I still have the book with the masking tape over the words in my office. I pull it out sometimes when I have writer’s block, so she’s still helping me even to this day.
Family: “Remember when Tonya had an allergic reaction to hair coloring and her head blew up like the Elephant Man?”
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
TH: Well, I’m from Pittsburgh, so we consider Super Bowl Sunday a major holiday. When the Steelers won, we would ride around town blowing our horn all night. Good times.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
TH: I regret not paying attention to reading in first grade. My teacher was my neighbor Mrs. Salvato. I thought I could get away with murder in her class. Showed off because I knew her since birth. What it really got me was a one-way ticket to remedial reading that year.
Determination 101. You can have all the IQ points, talent, and formal education in the world, but if you aren’t passionate about what you want to do or be, aren’t willing to put in the hard work to achieve it, none of that will make a difference. My father was a boxer, so it was always an “eye of the tiger” kind of mentality in our house. Mostly, though, my mom was the one who taught me determination. She raised us twins pretty much on her own, worked three jobs just to make it.
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
TH: I was definitely my own person in high school. I pretty much got along with everyone. I decided to rebel against type. I turned up one day with a violet faux hawk—in a town and time where this just wasn’t done. I played the drums since I was eight, and so I just wanted to dedicate all my time to my punk band at the time. I didn’t want to fit in. It was just so ridiculous to me, the whole thought of it. Anyway, my plan backfired because after the year of ridicule and torment that I was so desperately seeking, others started to color their hair and go to shows and so it kind of made me even more popular in the end.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
TH: Really discovering music. It was my co-major in college, led me to New York City for my first job as a rock and roll publicist and ultimately to my career as a writer.
SH: When asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Was it the truth?
TH: I always wanted to be a storyteller. Whether as a musician—which it was for a while—a short-film director, television sitcom writer, or an author, I didn’t really know. Everything I’ve done in terms of my education and career has involved writing in one way or another.
SH: Any epic family vacation stories? Recent or from the past?
TH: Not a family vacation, but most recently I was on a book tour in Colombia. Me, my sister, and the Minister of Culture of Peru were all in an elevator in Bogotá. The elevator free-fell two stories and then came to a crashing halt. It was horrifying, but I somehow maintained my dignity. My sister, however, did not. We did walk away with an open invitation to visit Peru.
Then, there was the time when I was a teen camping in the mountains with my sister and best friend, Deb. We had a Sasquatch encounter. He ate all the raw chicken from our neighbor’s campsite and then fled. We only saw his hairy silhouette. But, we threw our tent in the back of the car, everything still inside it including food, and jammed. My mother doesn’t believe this story. She just thinks we didn’t want to pack up our stuff.
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? How long would you want the superpower to last?
TH: Omnipotence! Then I would have every superpower. Selfish, I know.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
TH: My twin sister, Tracy. My best friend, Tamara. Or, my friend Parker who pretty much operates as my therapist. Then there is my husband Michael and Ally Condie, who get ear-fulls.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
TH: So many. I absolutely loved Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids. She is a fascinating and talented woman and the gritty, hard-knock picture she paints of her life and career in New York City in the early 70s is so enthralling, it reads like fiction. I really related to her story and struggle. There’s a lot of that in The Blessed.
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
TH: People who walk out of the “in” side of double doors.
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
TH: I had no clue when I got my first paycheck, or that ghostgirl would have turned out to be what it is. I remember my editor, Nancy Conescu at Little, Brown, calling to tell me that I had received starred reviews from four of the major lit publications, including VOYA. I remember hanging up the phone, absolutely devastated. I didn’t understand why she called to tell me that the book had only received ONE star from these publications. I thought it was a failure. But, once I discovered it was a GOOD thing, I went out and bought the chandelier from the Amityville Horror House. I have no idea why. Strange things started happening in our house. I am still trying to get rid of it, but no one will take it. I don’t want to throw it away, because I don’t want to make it angry. I should have just paid off a credit card like everyone else.
SH: If you could be a character from any book, including your own, who would you want to be?
TH: So many. I don’t know. I guess I would pick Eustacia Vye from Hardy’s Return of the Native, at the moment. A perfect anti-heroine, and very unusual for the Victorian period. She’s such a dark, moody, complicated, and flawed character, even borderline evil at times. A victim of Fate or her own choices? You’re never quite sure. The Blessed is full of that kind of dynamic. I identify with multi-dimensional characters that surprise. From my books, I definitely identify with both Charlotte and Scarlet in ghostgirl, and struggling New York musician Cecilia in The Blessed.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
TH: Marie Curie, David Sedaris, Sylvia Plath, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, St. Lucy—I would love to know what she thinks of my book. We are eating pizza.
SH: When you begin to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
TH: I write in my upstairs attic office, usually at night. My approach to storytelling is very visual. I assemble all sorts of pictures of fashions and accessories, homes, and furniture that I imagine define each character. Listen to certain types of music. Sometimes, I’ll build stop motion armatures of my characters. Look at art. Those sorts of things put me in the right headspace to begin.
SH: When you’re done for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?
TH: Online shopping for really strange stuff. I also love making things for my readers.
SH: One of your books has been selected to be made into a movie, which book would you want it to be and who would want in your cast?
TH: I used to think of this a lot, but now I’m really focused on the books. That’s my job and my passion. Whatever comes after that is icing.
SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you?
TH: My family makes me happiest and saddest, depending on the hour, day, week, month, year. The thing that really scares me is dropping from the sky and spontaneous demonic possession.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
TH: I thing I like best about myself is that I’m very sure of what I like at any given time. Whether it’s clothes or accessories or home décor or a new topic for a book, I don’t spend a lot of time wavering. I know it when I see it. Or think it. And, I do pick up things with my toes! I learned that from my mother—single, raising twins. She had to use her toes! I have since passed this skill onto my daughter, Isabelle.
SH: A series of choices: Coffee, tea, or soda pop? Morning or night? Spend or save? Board games or video games? Introvert or extrovert? Elevator or stairs?
TH: Coffee, Night, Spend, Head games, Ambivert, Escalator
SH: Any advice for teens, something you wish you had known? Or wish you had done? Or wish you had not done? And why. (Or maybe: Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten, at any age?
TH: No one really knows what they’re doing.
SH: Charlotte will be seventeen forever. If you could be one age for the rest of eternity (through magic—not death), what age would you choose?
TH: I loved being twenty-three. Moving to NYC and not knowing anything or anyone. It was such an exciting time. I also really enjoyed twenty-eight for some reason. It’s when I started getting serious about what I wanted to do with my life. I also love now.
SH: Death by gummy bear would be embarrassing, but tasty, too. Are gummy bears a guilty pleasure or are they last thing you’d ever purposely put in your mouth?
TH: My character Charlotte was a choker in life, so I knew she had to choke to death. I tried to think of the most innocuous, innocent thing I could and turn it into a killer. I never eat gummy bears when I’m home alone or in the presence of someone who does not know the Heimlich.
SH: Scarlet and Damon bond over a shared love of music. What songs do you think they would say describe, or embody, the important people in their lives?
“I’ll be Your Mirror” by The Velvet Underground for Charlotte
“Doll Parts” by Hole or “You’re so Vain” by Carly Simon for Petula
“Dumb” by Nirvana for The Wendy’s
“I Will Follow You into The Dark” by Death Cab for Damen
“Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loves Me” by The Smiths for Charlotte
“To Wish Impossible Things” by The Cure for Scarlet
“Meaningless” by Magnetic Fields for Petula
“The Idiot” by Iggy Pop for The Wendys
SH: If you were a regular at Identitea, what would Scarlet be brewing up on your behalf?
TH: Either something really strong or something with lavender. There is no in between with me.
SH: Scarlet’s favorite holiday is Daylight Savings Time. Do you share her love of the time change? Or do you have a different, favorite holiday?
TH: I love to sleep, it’s my favorite thing, so, yes, I do share her “extra hour” part of it. The holiday that I live for, however, is Halloween.
SH: The silhouettes at the beginning of each chapter are so spot-on for what’s coming—plus they’re beautiful! How hard was that to work out? Did you get to keep any original prints?
TH: I worked very closely with the artist, Craig Phillips, on those for each of the ghostgirl books. I would direct him and he would whip them up. I love them so much that I bought the rights to all of them! I have one of her lying with flowers in her hand across the ceiling in my office.
SH: Scarlet’s dedication to shopping vinyl and thrift stores comes from her belief that forgotten things have so much life in them. Are you a vintage shopper? Are there any collectibles you search high and low to find?
TH: I am most definitely a vintage shopper. My wardrobe closet and kitchen cabinets are full of cool hand-me downs from family members and thrift shop finds I’ve made over the years. I live in a two hundred year old farmhouse furnished mostly with vintage sofas, tables, and lighting.
SH: Charlotte’s mom calls her monkey puff as “mush mash-up,” making up for years of missed endearments. What’s the best endearment you’ve gotten and/or given?
TH: I have my own language when it comes to endearments. I’m constantly calling my daughter by made-up words and she hates it. I called her “preemie vampire” when she was a baby because she was premature and when lights would come on after being in the dark, her eyes would get really big.
SH: All the kids in Dead Ed have had names and stories that are a sick kind of funny, which I loved! Where do you get the ideas?
TH: My neuroses and tortured imagination!
Blessed (now Precious Blood)
SH: If Sebastian were to give you a chaplet, would you take it? What charm do you think he would offer you? Would you find it charming or alarming?
TH: A dagger through the top of a skull. I would find it honest. I’m not sure if I’d believe him or not, but I would never turn down jewelry from a hot guy.
SH: You created a fictional, big, three day, epic storm that brings everyone together. Then life imitates art and Hurricane Sandy comes along just a short time after Blessed was published. Do you know something we don’t know? Have you gotten any outstanding comments how closely your fiction came to mirroring a real event?
TH: It gets even crazier than the big storm, which hit just before All-Saints Day, by the way. I flew Karina, the model from the cover, over from Lithuania, to shoot the trailer. She stayed with me and we were walking home to my Brooklyn apartment after shooting all day at Saint Ann’s. That night, lightning struck the bell tower of an old church on my street and collapsed the whole thing, as does the fictional bell tower in Precious Blood. And from what I’m hearing on the news, we are about to be inundated by a plague of cicadas, which is also in the book. Even more real-life coincidences in the sequel, Passionaries, but I’ll hold on to those for now. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know what’s going to happen to all of us.
SH: So many religious references are included throughout the story: the mandalas, numbering the verses in your chapters, the symbolic references in the artwork, the various connections to Catholicism, and sacrificing one person to save the many. Where did all the different ideas come from? How hard was it to work all these pieces in with the tangled relationships of the four main characters?
TH: My first inspiration for the series came from stumbling across stories of the lives of the martyrs. As I read them, it occurred to me that these were some of the earliest YA stories we have. Ultimately, they are about love and death and defiant teenagers. Not to mention all the supernatural stuff. It’s where all the stories of zombies and vampires come from, so I thought; why not just go there? The exciting, but also tricky thing for me was to re-imagine the stories in a modern world and make the characters relevant for readers who might not know much or anything at all about them. The legends are bloody and brutal, but the idea of using faith as a narrative device, and to explore all these issues of belief and morality that bubble just beneath the surface of our culture was too tempting to pass up. As far as I know, it is rarely, if ever been done in YA before and I’m proud of that. I could have written “Saints in High School” or disguised it all in monsters and mermaids, but I wanted it to be raw and gritty, even a little trippy. I mean how would you react if someone told you that you were a saint?
SH: How did the new title and cover re-do come about? Were you able to have an opinion on the covers or titles for either edition?
TH: I love both covers. The first cover was a real labor of love for all of us and I think it’s creepy without being literally dark. It’s so different. And, I absolutely love the reverse cover with Lucy’s saint image on the opposite side by artist Natalie Shau. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while. The cover of The Blessed really falls into that “picture being worth a thousand words” category. The whole book is right there in her face, her eyes. The paperback cover titled, Precious Blood, is probably a little more lush and evocative. We used the artist Abbey Watkins, who did the interiors. It does total justice to the story and is equally beautiful. And, the saint image is the step back cover. I absolutely love what Lizzy Bromley at Simon and Schuster has done! For the second book, Passionaries, we have a Cecilia cover, only it’s a work by Abbey made up of everything Cecilia is. If you step back a little, you will see Cecilia there on the cover without her actually being on it. And, we have the saint image of her by Natalie as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled with it. My editor Zareen Jaffery and all at Simon and Schuster are rock stars in my book.
SH: Is there anyone in particular who you’d like to credit—or blame—for encouraging your wonderfully macabre sense of humor?
TH: My aunt Mary loved horror films, but she was afraid to watch them on her own. She used to babysit us and make us watch them with her. We watched Salem’s Lot when we were practically babies! I love things with horror, humor, and heart. That’s what I strive for in all of my stories.
SH: Would you rather have an official theme song written by a favorite band, a graphic novel adaption, or a full-length film (animated or live-action) made for either the ghostgirl series or The Blessed?
TH: All those things would be great. In fact, Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure produced the “Lovesick” theme song I wrote for the book trailer, and that was awesome. But I guess I’d be happiest with a TV show and/or film, which we are, fingers crossed, close to making. I don’t typically talk about attachments or options. But, I did have an amazing chat with Wes Craven. 😉
SH: Who is the coolest celebrity (in any venue—singer/author/movie star) you’ve met and what was the topic of conversation?
TH: I had lunch with Bella Thorne recently and that was fun. She said I was her favorite author, which really meant a lot to me. In my previous life, I was a rock publicist and television writer, so I got to meet and work for so many of the people I’ve admired over the years. Morrissey, Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode, Johnny Rotten—John Cale and Robert Smith of The Cure definitely stand out and were the ones with whom I had the most in common. I also got to meet President Clinton, Robert DeNiro—who optioned my feature film script for ghostgirl before I made it into a book series, Scorsese, John Waters, David Sedaris, Madonna, David Bowie . . . Maybe I’ll write a book someday? Right now, I’m co-directing a music video for one of them.
But, the oddest, most surreal experience I’ve ever had was when I lived in the East Village. My neighbor upstairs was an artist and she didn’t own a TV. She came down one night and asked me if she could bring some friends down to watch the presidential debate. I, of course, agreed. I was just chilling with my then boyfriend, now husband, Michael. We were in our sweats. Anyway, the elevator door opens to my loft and out walks JFK Jr. with a six-pack of Rolling Rock under his arm! I took my friend aside and screamed, “Why didn’t you tell me you were bringing him?” She responded in her European accent, “Would it have mattered?” “Yes!” I yelled. No makeup and sweatpants, eating popcorn, drinking Rolling Rock with JFK Jr. lying on my floor. I still can’t get over it.
SH: Do you ever play the video or board games that you created? (Can you reveal the names of the games?) Is it harder or easier to play a game if you’re the one who actually wrote the rules?
TH: No! Not for ages, but I’m still really proud of those things. The video games I did for PlayStation and Gameboy seem totally primitive by today’s standards but they were some of the first games ever designed for girls. At that time, girls didn’t game at all, and they weren’t taken very seriously in that world. But we took them seriously and they sold a ton. I hear they are collectibles now. It all comes around.
SH: What’s the best or most surprising question you’ve ever been asked?
TH: I’m always asked “What’s it like being a twin?” My answer is always, “I don’t know what it’s like not being a twin.”
Tonya Hurley on the Internet
Tonya Hurley’s Official Website: http://tonyahurley.com/
Ghostgirl on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ghostgirl
Books by Tonya Hurley
Ghostgirl. Little, Brown, 2008. 328p. $17.99. 978-0-3161-1357-1. VOYA August 2008. 4Q 5P J S
Ghostgirl -Homecoming. Little, Brown, 2009. 285p. $17.99. 978-0-3161-1359-5. VOYA August 2009. 3Q 3P S
Ghostgirl -Lovesick. Little Brown, 2010. 311p. $17.99. 978-0-3160-7026-3. VOYA
Blessed. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 405p. $17.99. 978-1-4424-2951-2. VOYA October 2012 3Q 4P J S