Shannon Hembree was the Grand Prize Winner of the Young Adult category in the 2021 Book Pipeline Unpublished season with her novel, The Only Thing We Have to Fear.
The YA psychological thriller genre is one that, admittedly, is a bit oversaturated at the moment. I’ve read a lot of them at this point, so I definitely know what to expect…which is why I was overjoyed when I came across your piece, The Only Thing We Have to Fear. You truly achieved something remarkable with this—you managed to provide a fresh plot twist on a teen kidnapping saga, while still remaining true to the beloved tonal tropes of that subgenre. Furthermore, your writing is gripping, highly entertaining, and compulsively readable. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of the premise for The Only Thing We Have to Fear? Were these aforementioned marketplace trends on your mind when you were first breaking the story?
Excuse me while I go frame that question and hang it up on my wall, because—wow! Thank you! I definitely don’t write with trends in mind. For me, it’s all about the emotional connection. It’s about the characters I can’t stop thinking about, and in this case, the fears that send me tiptoeing to turn on the hallway light in the dead of night. Fear is a combination of those two things—characters that plague me and fears that haunt me.
Something I constantly preach to writers is that, when you’re writing a “genre” piece (a thriller/horror/sci-fi/etc.), it’s not enough for it to just be thrilling, scary, or otherworldly. The most important aspect for it to have is emotional resonance—bar none. And if your narrative doesn’t have it? It’s going to be forgotten by a reader as soon as they’ve finished it. Fear has emotional resonance in spades with the reclaiming coming-of-age arc of its protagonist, Casey. How did you find balancing that with the pulse-pounding pulp sensibilities of a thriller?
It was such a deeply emotional story for me to write, which I think/hope comes through for the reader. As anyone who has struggled with anxiety knows, it is relentless and at times utterly overwhelming. I haven’t faced down a serial killer, but I do live with anxiety, and I tried to communicate that experience through this story.
I always knew I wanted Casey to be her own hero in the end. I wanted her to save herself. When my daughter was diagnosed with anxiety in the midst of my writing this story, it became even more important to me that Casey make peace with who she is and tap into her inner badass.
That emotional piece was always at the forefront for me, and I wove the suspense in from there. For me, it’s not about vampires (they’re hot) or werewolves (they’re fuzzy). It’s about the evil that lives among us. There’s a reason we walk through darkened parking garages clutching our car keys and cell phones. There’s a reason we check over our shoulder when we’re running on a trail through the woods. When we’re lying in bed at night wondering if we remembered to lock the basement door, it’s our fellow man we fear. It’s such a twisted and terrifying dynamic to me—so of course I jumped right in!
You have quite the intriguing background—after getting a BA and MA in political science, you’ve gone on to write for celebrities, CEOs, and even a U.S. President (I’m so curious as to who, but I’ll let you plead the fifth…). How do you think all of those experiences have influenced your fiction writing career?
To me, the constant across it all is people. When we’re following politics and studying history, people are the heart and soul of that—and talk about your flawed characters! History and politics focus on the powerful, but the stories of the unsung heroes are everything. There are character arcs, triumphs, and tragedies at every level, and fiction reflects that human dynamic.
As for specific influences, one moment stands out. When I was working at the White House, we had to write the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Presidential Citizens Medal citations. They were read aloud at big ceremonies at the White House and at Constitution Hall. I had just gotten into writing at that point and needless to say was shaking in my wildly uncomfortable high heels at the prospect. An amazing woman I worked with (Note the plug for women mentoring women!), took the time to talk me through what made a successful citation. Her advice was to combine the facts with emotion—to make the audience feel something. The best citations, I would quickly learn, were the ones that made the audience laugh out loud or collectively say, “Aaaww!”
That piece of advice has been my touchstone ever since. Whether I’m writing a speech, a video script, or something else entirely, my goal is to make that connection and elicit that audience reaction. The same holds true when I write fiction. I want to feel that connection when I’m writing a story, and I want the audience to feel that connection when they read it. When in doubt, always do that emotional gut check.
This is a go-to question for anyone I interview—but it always results in compelling answers, so I’m going to ask it to you: if you could go back in time and give the former you one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
One thing I would say to my former self is to value family stories. I wish that was something I knew to do earlier. I recently finished a project with my mom. It took about six months to get through the questions I wanted to ask and to sort through old family photos, but the result is a book of my mom’s life to date. I know her general story—of her father dying when she was in seventh grade, of her first husband dying very young, of her marriage to my dad, which was less than stellar, and of her getting her Ph.D. at 59. But those are milestones, not stories. Her stories included covering for a fellow nursing student who was married (which wasn’t allowed at the time) and the entire floor of nursing students pulling off crazy stunts one night when the dorm mother did bed checks. Score one for the nursing students—the dorm mother never did bed checks on their floor again.
Our stories reveal our humanity. They peel back the layers of the titles we hold—mom, aunt, etc.—and remind others that underneath those layers, we’re all just people. I love that. Had I recognized the value of these stories earlier, I would have interviewed my grandparents. Because I didn’t, those stories are lost. I’ve also tried to do it with my kids because those memories fade along with the moments.
There’s value in our stories no matter where we are in life, so grab a journal and jot down a little each day. Pick up the phone and get the ball rolling with your parents and grandparents. You never know what stories they might have to tell.
Finally, what are you most excited about in your work-in-progress? I can’t wait to read it!
Oh, you know…a dead body, a ticking clock, and an old roadside hotel that may or may not be haunted…
I’m still working through the storyline (I’m a pantser who pretends to be a plotter.), but I always start with characters, so that’s where my spark is with this project. The two characters leading the way are Zoe, who is the unofficial caregiver for her little brother, and Tilly, a crotchety old hotel owner who is the unofficial caregiver for Zoe. Both have secrets, so that’s fun to think through in a strategic sense, but I love exploring the relationship between a girl who needs (but doesn’t necessarily want) a champion, and an older woman who needs (but doesn’t necessarily want) someone to care about. For me, it’s about delving into the notion of how we define family. Are our family members those we’re born with or are they those kindred spirits we connect with along the way? Per my previous pantser comment, we’ll have to see where it takes us!
Shannon Hembree loves to explore different writing voices and styles and has written for a U.S. president, CEOs, celebrities, and more. Her blogs have won humor awards and been featured on national sites, and her work has won numerous communications and business awards.
Her young adult thriller, The Only Thing We Have to Fear, is her latest writing adventure. It features Casey, a seventeen-year-old kidnapping survivor who has decided to reclaim her life after eight years of self-imposed seclusion. With the help of a new friend, Casey summons the courage to journey back into the outside world, only to find that her kidnapper has been waiting in the shadows to collect what she owes him—a life in exchange for the one she cheated him out of by escaping all those years ago.
Shannon holds a BA and MA in political science—degrees she never quite put into practice—and is the proud mom of incredibly energetic twin boys, an amazing daughter, and a slightly devious cat named Simba.