The Big Idea: Sarah Rees Brennan

Look! A large, sinister manor! Filled with parapets and secret panels and whatnot! What sort of story shall we put in such a thing? Well, Sarah Rees Brennan knows, because there’s one in her latest novel, Unspoken. Draw up a Victorian-style chair next to the roaring fire in the large (and sinister!) hearth, and let her tell you about it.


Gothic novels are often referred to as the ‘girl meets house’ genre. This is pretty accurate: usually the girl meets a tall dark dangerous man and a tall dark dangerous manor at about the same time.

It’s like a love triangle, in the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot or Edward/Bella/Jacob vein, if brave Sir Lancelot or that poor werewolf guy was a house. A house that was on fire.

It’s very difficult to have relationships with a house, especially if it’s a Gothic manor.

MAIDEN: I just don’t know if I can trust you to be a good manor! You’re mad, bad and dangerous to buy or rent!
MANOR: Baby I can change.
MAIDEN: You always say that! And then I find another madwoman in your attic or God forbid, someone else buried alive in the walls…
MANOR: But we’re so good together. This bed is on fire, with passionate love!
MAIDEN: Yes, the bed is LITERALLY ON FIRE. That’s part of the problem!

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a lady having a woooooonderful dream about her house, and that house in the dream, it is lookin’ goooooooood.

And in Barbara Michaels’s Someone in the House… the house actually forms a, um, body at a Key Moment and makes sweet housalicious love to someone. Don’t look at me like that: I just report the news.

But, hey. Who doesn’t like an old manor full of family secrets? I like an old manor. (But not, and I want to stress this, in a sexy way.) I like an atmospheric mystery with all the underlying emotional business: that you’re trapped, that you’re in danger, that nobody will believe you and even you are starting to worry that you’re crazy.

So, I wanted to write a Gothic mystery. But I wanted to make it new: I wanted to make it mine.

So, first of all, I thought, the Gothic hero who comes with the house, the one who is keeping all those secrets? Here’s looking at you, Edward ‘Wife In The Attic Plus Fake Girlfriend Because That Situation Wasn’t Complicated Enough’ Rochester.

That boyfriend is a terrible boyfriend. Girls don’t have to put up with stuff like that nowadays, for God’s sake, there’s always

I started thinking, though, that children have to move where their parents bring them. And, since I love the reversal of a trope about as much as a gothic heroine loves a house, I decided to make my gothic heroine … a boy.

Now, I don’t mean I wanted to make him a gothic hero. Gothic heroes are always in the know about everything and keeping quiet, apparently to be annoying mofos, and also are always wenching around Europe (a fine time to be sure, but the poor lad’s only seventeen). I wanted to give the usual business of a gothic heroine, alone, unloved, transplanted into a sinister Gothic manor and kept in the dark about many a shady family secret, to a boy character. And well, yes, okay, I threw in a little brooding gothic hero business too for good measure. And lo, I got Jared Lynburn, lunatic, secret romantic and twitchy dude ready to deck you at a moment’s notice for asking the time.

But since he was going to be an outsider to the little English town which the Gothic manor overlooks, I wanted to write about an insider, someone who knew Sorry-in-the-Vale and all its inhabitants. (Think about it: the villagers clearly know there’s something up with Count Dracula. ‘He tips really well when he brings the castle linen to the drycleaner’s, but we are so tired of him kidnapping the children and feeding them to wolves.’)

And the heroine should be someone capable of unravelling a Gothic mystery. This is the point where two genres collided in my head with a glorious smash: Gothics and lady sleuths.

I like me some Lois Lane: I like me some Miss Marple. I like me some Nancy Drew, and the women behind these creations, and the women these creations were based on.

Girls who are indomitable, who like mysteries, who go toward the creepy sound in the cellars or the dark doings in the woods because they want to report on it.

The more Gothic mysteries I read, the more I thought we needed someone like that around.

Enter Kami Glass, brand new editor of the school newspaper, intrepid girl reporter, goofball (because what sinister mystery would not be improved by a little humour, this stuff is funny, you all read what someone did with a house…), becoming very concerned about a) actual screaming going on in the woods outside her town, b) everyone in town, including her own mother, acting fifty shades of shady, and c) how it all links up with the Lynburn family, who just arrived back in their ancestral manor after a 17-year absence.

Murder. Magic. Petty crime in the cause of great justice. Love, fear and live burial. Very embarrassing psychic links. Really suspicious architecture.

The big idea was to give you all of the above with Unspoken.


Unspoken: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

15 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sarah Rees Brennan”

  1. “Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.”
    — Brian W. Aldiss, in “Billion Year Spree” (1973)

  2. I think I love this novel, and I haven’t even read it yet. (I dream of houses with secret passages and hidden attics. These dreams were probably assisted by the mansion that my college owned and used for retreats—with servants’ stairs and everything!)

  3. The Manor as a character was quite enough, but the quote from the James song is what sealed the deal… : )

  4. I envy everyone who hasn’t read this yet, because they can. I loved this book; it made me laugh in multiple places (which is not a kindness when one is on the subway) and it made me weep. (It also made me shriek OMG WHERE IS THE SECOND ONE I NEED IT NOOOOOOOOOOOOOW, which is a totally acceptable intellectual reaction. Honest.)

    So many, many ways this book could have gone south. It didn’t. Nor did it just keep it’s head above water. I just – want to go to the bookstore now that we have it and press it into the hands of anyone who will stand still. Or stillish.

  5. Ooh, Michelle, now that makes me put the book up in my TBR pile on my Sony. I bought it on release day, but had to finish another book first. And WHY isn’t your next Elantra novel out yet??? Did you read Team Human, too? That was a blast ^^.

  6. My copy’s in the mail. Can’t wait to actually get my hands on it. I suspect that there’s an all-nighter waiting to happen.

  7. Flerg. Way to promote the crap out of this book. On Twitter, on Whatever. Now I want to read it so bad that I can hardly stand it. BUT I NEEDS MONEYZ! Soon, though. Very soon.

  8. Did anyone ever write a Gothic novel where the house was occupied by real Goths? I mean guys with chain mail, swords, and German accents.

  9. Great good fun! Found this book and this author due to this Big Idea entry, and Sarah Rees Brennan is now on my “Don’t ask questions, just buy” list.

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