Q & A: Dawn Kurtagich
What inspired you to write The Dead House?
A number of things in my life comingled to make The Dead House possible. They all came to a head when I was twenty-four and went into sudden liver failure from an unknown (most likely) genetic disease. During this period, I spent thirteen months bed-ridden, very sick and waiting on the transplant list.
I experienced what is called “inversion syndrome”, which is where patients with liver disease experience wakefulness at night and sleep during the day. One night, I remember thinking: “What would this be like if it was all a girl had ever known? Would she be suffering, like me? Would she be normal? What about her family? What would happen to her during the day?” These questions were the birth-place of Kaitlyn, child of darkness and girl of nowhere. And of course, if she was the dark half to the equation, there had to be a light half.
At the same time as all of this was happening, a member of my family, who asks not to be named and who suffers with D.I.D (Dissociative Identity Disorder) was finding it difficult to watch me on what we all assumed was my deathbed. Because of this, their symptoms of D.I.D were not under control. Many alters came out, some playful, some confused, one defiantly insistent that they were not an alter at all.
All of these things – my illness, inversion syndrome, losing control of my body (and my mind–I would hallucinate and couldn’t think very clearly), thinking about the afterlife, death and mortality, thinking about losing an organ and gaining another (at the expense of another person’s life), and my family member literally losing themselves – comingled into a novel about a girl who is told she isn’t real, who fights to let it be known she is, only to lose the other half of her existence and everything in between.
The Dead House came from a pretty dark time in my life, a pretty amazing time too, and I am very proud of this little book. It is my catharsis, and my thank you – to my doctors, my family, my nurses, my transplant coordinators, but especially and most importantly, to my donor.
Can you tell us about the process of writing The Dead House?
When I first began thinking about The Dead House, I started with Carly. Kaitlyn scared me. She was that broken, insecure girl inside of me – the one who had so much more to lose –and I wasn’t ready to face her. So, of course, I deflected.
In the very early days, Carly ruled the page. She was a girl trying to have a normal life, who happened to have a sister who came out at night and caused all kinds of havoc. I was too scared to even think about using the experience of D.I.D (because I knew a difficult conversation would need to be had with my family), and so I side-stepped that all together. Surprisingly, I even have a little extract from the very, very first draft to share:
Give me myself again . . .
October 15th, 5:45 am.
I'm myself again.
My mouth tastes like stale cigarettes and old beer, and I dread opening my eyes because, who knows where Kaitlyn has left me? Mentally, I scan my body . . . limbs in tact . . . fingers feel fine . . . no wet patches . . . no pain at all.
I risk a peek through mascara-encrusted lashes and sigh with relief to see that I've been discarded on Kaitlyn's bed.
That's what she calls it when the shifts switch . . . "discarding". Like I'm a used paper cup.
The bedroom lies in chaotic disarray; clothes litter the floor, as if Kaitlyn picked the petals off some giant cotton flower and let them float down and sit where they fell. Among the endless tank tops, jeans, mini-skirts and halter necks are clusters of makeup. Mascara here, eye shadow there, a bundle of dark lipsticks and eyeliners near the empty bin. Even my own bed, a sedate peach-cream is caked in her belongings.
A purple post-it glares at me from her lampshade.
I flip up the post-it and find another below it.
Mind elbow (sorry) xoxo
I crane my neck to look at my elbow and see that the skin has been shaved off as though Kaitlyn took us through a meat grinder last night.
A patch of my hair is crusted over and I sniff at it tentatively. Putrid. If it's vomit, I hope at least it's hers.
For the millionth time I wonder where she drags our body off to at night, what she does and who she sees. I doubt Mum and Dad fund her budget, so I have no idea where she gets the money to party, and that makes me even more nervous. But all too often she discards me smelling like a ten-pound hooker.
Sometimes she indulges me with details I would rather not know. I find myself searching my body for signs – marks, smells, wounds.
Throwing her musk-perfumed, zebra-patterned duvet off me, I stumble to the bathroom and take a long shower, washing her dark makeup from my face and the crusty patch from my hair. I notice that a good amount of my silk-scrub skin balm is gone and feel a flicker of annoyance.
When I reach my wardrobe I find another post-it from Kait, pinned to my favorite pair of skinny jeans.
Where the hell did you put my black corset top?!
I trudge to her wardrobe and pull out the aforementioned top, which was where it ought to be – on a hanger in the cupboard and not strewn across the floor or chair or windowsill. I put it on her bed without a note and finish getting ready for school.
For years people called me freak, weirdo and psycho. Until the brain scan, I thought I really was crazy. Then they discovered two brain stems side by side, each controlling our shared brain at different times, proving Kaitlyn was real and I wasn't crazy. Our brain also has two distinct hippocampi and temporal lobes, proving we each have our own memories and experiences. After this discovery, it became "freak of nature" or "mutant", which I guess I preferred over “psycho”.
When I started high school I decided not to tell anyone except my best friend (who already knew) about Kaitlyn. I mean, who would know? I cultivated a studious air and a reputation for staying in at night, and it still works. Mum keeps this secret from Kaitlyn, and her feelings are preserved. As is her ego. And I can pretend to be a normal girl with a normal life, which is all I've ever wanted. I'm not quite there. Like "normal" is a destination on a map and my car broke down fifty miles short of it.
I want a life free from post-it notes, sun-rise/sun-set charts, lies about why I never go out to parties or do anything but hang out at home with my parents after the sun dips below the horizon. I want a life where I don't have to worry about Kaitlyn being seen by one of my friends doing one of her favourite things – theft, drugs, alcohol, guys. I live in constant fear that I'll lose everything because of her.
I push away thoughts of a free life and put on my school uniform (muttering about the hole Kaitlyn's pin left in the thigh of my jeans, my scraped elbow and the plethora of other tiny complaints), then grab the message book we share. I pull out my own post-its and write her a note and leave it on her wardrobe door, which is once again stocked neatly.
Did you even notice the mess you left for me to clean up?
I tear off a second and add: There was vomit in my hair.
Once stuck to the door, I grab my blue school blazer and head downstairs.
I flip to the most recent entry in the message book as I descend and find that Kaitlyn has indulged in a three-page rant about Mum. I slip it into my school bag, knowing I'll need more than the short walk downstairs to digest that drama.
Mum is already in the kitchen, singing a Doris Day song I don't recognize and expertly flipping pancakes. She is dressed in a plush floral dress reminiscent of the good old Fifties, and heels that are way too inconvenient for inside the house. My mother is what men call a bombshell, and feminists snigger about in catty whispers.
"Morning," I say, and take a seat at the breakfast table beside Dad, who is immersed in the paper, his glasses propped on his nose and his shirt neatly pressed. I lean over and kiss him on the cheek and he grins as he takes a gulp of his orange juice and folds the paper away.
"Morning, Pumpkin. Sleep okay?"
He always asks me this. When the switch happens, I don't know where I go, but I do know I'm not asleep. I don't dream. I don't remember any of the time that Kaitlyn has control, nor does she remember my time.
I feel a familiar stab of sadness for my sister, who has never seen a sunrise or a sunset, who has never seen a blue sky or green fields. She lives her life in shades of grey.
Mum puts a pile of pancakes in the middle of the table and decants some more orange juice. I take three of the pancakes and smother them in butter and sugar, while Mum laughs and shakes her head.
"I remember the days when I could eat like that," she says, digging into the unsweetened grapefruit on her own plate.
"Those were the days, huh, John?"
Dad looks up at her with the same expression I see whenever she is around him – utter love and devotion. "You'd look good at any size, shape or height."
She brushes away his compliment as usual, with a flick of her hand, but blushes none-the-less.
I wait a few mouthfuls before I ask the question that's been on my mind, like a musical tick I can't shake, since I woke up.
"How was Kaitlyn last night?"
If I didn’t know my parents, I wouldn't notice anything change. I, however, see the twitch in Mum's cheek and the tension in Dad's jaw.
"Oh," Mum says, breathing a laugh that is airy with false lightness. "She went out."
I nod and ask casually, "When did she get back?"
"We were asleep when she got back," Dad says, but I know Mum would have been waiting up.
Now that I look closely, I can see the extra layer of concealer under her eyes. There is a finality in the way Dad says it and I know he's forbidding me to prod further.
I wish Kaitlyn wouldn't do this to our parents. I wish she would tell me what she does all night long. She's supposed to be home schooled, but I think it's been at least a year since she took to her studies. She probably figures there’s no need, since she'll never have to get a job or pay our way. And she's right. That future is all down to me, the Daylight Child.
"Well, I'm off to school," I say, a little too brightly. "See you this afternoon."
Mum hands me a brown paper bag with my lunch, even though she knows I’ll go out, as usual. "You have drama club today?"
"Yeah, but I'm coming straight home after, so see you at around four."
Dad hands me a tenner when Mum isn't looking and winks like he thinks I still buy milk and cookies from the cafeteria. He's been doing this every school day since I was eleven, and I have almost ten thousand pounds saved in a wooden box under my bed. Not even Kaitlyn knows about it. It's my nest egg. My "just-in-case". I'm not really sure what disaster I'm waiting for, but I can feel it looming on the horizon like a noxious cloud, getting closer and closer as the years pass.
I kiss my mother goodbye and head out the door to meet Brett down the road where he'll be waiting in his sensible Ford, and I try not to imagine I see my cloud of approaching doom lingering on the distant horizon, even though I can feel it in the core of my bones.
Somehow I know it's called Kaitlyn.
When I finally realised that I was wasting time on a story that wasn’t the story I wanted and needed to tell, I scrapped this version (apart from the first line!) and headed to my notebook to dig deep and think about what I wanted to explore.
When I had done that, it all came quick and fast. I used Scrivener to draft initially, opening a new tab every time something came to me. By the end I had many, many tabs, and story in there, somewhere. Then it became an engineering job – something akin to building a house out of tangled spaghetti and cotton threads.
The Mala and Grúndi aspects of the novel are fascinating. How did you come up with these religious themes?
I spent some time in my early years on a mission. My mother was working as a missionary and I would tag along to the church meetings out in the Bush. Once, I remember very clearly, an elderly tribe member (I can no longer recall if it was a woman or a man) cast bones at me in the orange dirt. It didn’t scare me – nor did whatever the tribal leader said to me. In fact, I remember being fascinated. It is the earliest memory I can recall of anything tribal. I would be in contact with different tribes and different systems of belief all throughout my childhood (I went to fifteen schools across two hemispheres of the globe), and it remains something I am fascinated by.
Mala and Grúndi are an amalgamation of things I saw, read, experienced and heard about throughout my childhood. I am very glad that readers are as fascinated as I am by these two practices and faiths.
Will we be seeing more of Mala and Grúndi in future works?
Many readers have asked me this, and the answer is: Yes, of course! I have not finished exploring Mala and Grúndi, so be sure to look out for it in future works.
Why such a visual element to your book? What made you write a found-footage style novel?
I didn’t set out to write a found footage novel. It just happened as the process went on. It began with diary entries; Kaitlyn’s and Carly’s. Then it evolved into Kaitlyn’s story (the real story). The post-it notes were always there, but that was really it.
It was only when I realised that Kaitlyn wasn’t being completely honest with me that I knew I needed something more – something beyond her perspective. I didn’t want to write a narrative in the middle of her diary entries, because it detracted from what Kaitlyn was trying to say. It detracted from her truths and partial truths. However, I did need to present facts outside of her written words. That’s when I realised I needed Naida’s camera. Naida had been a part of the novel from the beginning, but her camera had not. When I gave it to her, it opened up the whole story so much more. I could show what was happening (without assigning meaning to the action), so that the reader could see the truth of certain things, and the discrepancies in others. I could present evidence without bias to contrast with the intimacy of Kaitlyn’s diary. I also needed to hear from Dr. Lansing, Kaitlyn’s therapist, to get the balance of psychology versus demonology right, and that’s when the therapy session tapes came in.
When I realised this was all leading to a great tragedy with higher stakes than I had first imagined, that’s when it became found footage and I actively made it so. In terms of it being visual, once I knew it was found footage, I hoped to be able to include photographs or symbols. When both Little, Brown and Orion gave my book a home, my wildest dreams couldn’t prepare me for the beautiful job they would do.
Out of interest, this was a symbol I was playing with to represent the marks Naida makes on the walls and on the floor during her rituals:
What’s next for you?
About the Author
Dawn Kurtagich likes to think she lives in Westeros, Neverland or Hobbiton, and truthfully, her home comes pretty close. Head north of the Midlands and turn left towards the sea and you’ll find her there somewhere, buried in the hills or roaming the woods chasing words. She is a proud Slytherin, has a YouTube channel over at WritaholicDK, loves to paint with her feet, and has a cat named Floccinaucinihilipilification. The Dead House is her debut novel and is available now, in paperback.
Text copyright © Dawn Kurtagich, 2016