With her collection of dark fantasy novels that tip into horror, you might think you have Brenna Yovanoff pigeonholed. But Yovanoff's latest YA novel Places No One Knows isn't just a turn for the author, it's a revelation for even the most die-hard young adult fans. Leaving behind haunting ghosts, demons, magic passed among generations, and changelings, Places No One Knows is set in our real, contemporary world with human characters — with a small dose of the mysterious magic that we love Yovanoff for.
"I’m not going to lie, I love monsters," Yovanoff tells Bustle. "So this feels like a really big departure for me, even though I think it’s still dealing with a lot of the themes that I get really excited about, like identity and gray morality."
But what drew Yovanoff in this speculative fiction direction was the pull of her main character: "I went from monsters to Waverly, who is just the kind of person who would love monsters," she says.
In Places No One Knows , Waverly Camdenmar puts on her facade of the popular, go-getting high school girl. She and her sometimes-BFF Maribeth lead every extracurricular they can, plus her GPA is top-notch, and she's one of the best runners in the school. Marshall Holt, however, is the kind of boy girls like Waverly are warned against. Drinking and getting stoned on the weekdays make him ostensibly a no-show at school, and he can't bring himself to face his divided family. He's a burnout.
But Waverly is hiding more than her perfect veneer dares show. She's an insomniac, and she spends her nights running until her feet hurt. But when she lights a particular candle, her dreams take her into Marshall's home, into his life. She's dreaming, but it's his real life. In the dark nights, in the hazy dream-state, Marshall and Waverly start a relationship, opening up to each other in ways they never could in the harsh light of day.
And Yovanoff knows from personal experience the complications of dreaming and how it can affect real life. As an insomniac for most of her life, Yovanoff has very vivid dreams and experiences sleep hallucinations.
“I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and there will be dream elements populating my room, and they’re super vivid," Yovanoff says. "A lot of times, the things that I’ll see are really innocuous. Sometimes I’ll wake up and there will be vines and plants crawling up the walls. A really common, recurring one is a pair of white birds circling above my bed.”
I went from monsters to Waverly, who is just the kind of person who would love monsters.
Yovanoff brings these sensations to Waverly, but it's Waverly's dreams that allow her to more fully experience her real life. In each of their daily lives, both Waverly and Marshall keep people at a distance. But what Yovanoff says she was excited about was forcing them into a situation where they couldn't avoid being intimate.
“Even if you don’t think so, it is always totally worth your while to get to know new people—even people that you don’t think you have anything in common with, that you don’t think would be a good fit for you, because you don’t know," Yovanoff says.
“One of the things that I was really interested in with this story is how necessary intimacy—emotional intimacy, especially—is and how uncomfortable it can be," she adds.
Sometimes I’ll wake up and there will be vines and plants crawling up the walls. A really common, recurring one is a pair of white birds circling above my bed.
Places No One Knows is full of secrets, from Waverly and Marshall's relationship, kept in the dark, to the Post Secret-style anonymous messages the high school girls write in one particular bathroom stall: I'm not trying to starve myself, I just want to be thin. My best friend doesn't like me. I don't know how to act like a normal person and it's making my life miserable. My boyfriend isn't even nice.
“From the beginning I really was thinking about secrets and how it’s easier to tell your secrets to people who don’t know you very well, or tell them anonymously, or tell them to strangers," Yovanoff says. And in Waverly's life, she keeps most of her secrets from her former, toxic, still-somewhat best friend Maribeth, who rose with her from the ranks from high school nothing to powerhouse, calculating every step along the way. It's with Maribeth that Yovanoff says, "Waverly is being pigeonholed in her worst self."
“We have a tendency to think of girl friendships that are vicious and super-competitive, and I don’t like that," Yovanoff says. "With Maribeth and Waverly, I was interested in what they do offer each other."
But this kind of toxic BFF isn't the norm in Yovanoff's real life. The author is part of a team of female YA writers, including The Blood Journals' Tessa Gratton and The Raven Cycle's Maggie Stiefvater, who call themselves the Merry Sisters of Fate.
“I always had really good girlfriends growing up, and I still have amazing girlfriends," she says. It's from Stiefvater that Yovanoff says she learned how to plot her stories — “[When we met], I was trying really hard to be good at plot, but I was not there yet," she says — and from "master of world-building" Gratton that she learned how to breathe life into her settings.
I always had really good girlfriends growing up, and I still have amazing girlfriends.
No doubt that Gratton and Stiefvater will continue to influence Yovanoff's work as she continues writing. In 2017, one of her short stories will appear alongside her Merry Sisters of Fate friends, as well as Sabaa Tahir, Rae Carson, Renee Ahdieh, and other YA heavyweights in the anthology Triangles: The Points of Love. And currently, she hints that she's working on another speculative fiction story, in the same vein of Places No One Knows, about "misanthropy and idealism and trying really hard to be your best self." And it wouldn't be the Yovanoff we love if there wasn't an element of the paranormal: "There's a small element of time travel. I curse myself daily for picking time-travel because it’s really hard," she says.