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Tracy Sierra's debut novel 'Nightwatching' is a chilling thriller

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are interested in getting no sleep whatsoever tonight, have I got a book for you. The opening sentence of "Nightwatching" by Tracy Sierra reads, there was someone in the house. And the tale that unfolds from there pretty much guarantees you will stay up, as I did, way past bedtime, tearing through pages to find out what happens, or you'll be too petrified to sleep or maybe both. Tracy Sierra, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TRACY SIERRA: Thank you. I'm so excited.

KELLY: I want you to set the scene. Just describe for us what is happening as that first sentence of the novel plays out. There was someone in the house. This is - there's a woman. She's home alone with her young children. And then...

SIERRA: Yes, that's right. A woman is home alone at night with her young kids, and she sees a figure coming up her stairs and has all that fear we all do when you hear a bump in the night, hopes it's not real. But it is all too real. And it is up to her to find a way to protect her little family and figure out exactly what to do as it becomes increasingly clear that this is no ordinary home invasion.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, just hearing you describe seeing this figure coming up the stairs, it sends chills through me. I saw where you have described that situation as a primal - as a universal fear, you know, the idea of an intruder in your home who wants to harm you and people you love. It's my worst nightmare. Is it yours?

SIERRA: Certainly. I mean, I think that is the basis for the whole book - is my own sort of fear and anxiety and wanting to kind of poke at that idea. I think scary stories can be remarkably cathartic, and they certainly are for me when telling them.

KELLY: Yeah. You never name the woman, your protagonist, your heroine. And I wondered, is that intentional? Are you signaling this could be any of us? Like, this could be you.

SIERRA: I did that for kind of two reasons. It adds to the unsettling nature, I think. It kind of makes you question who each of these people are, how you define someone at all while also being oddly easier to step into their shoes.

KELLY: She doesn't - the mother doesn't have any great choices when this man, who's not supposed to be in her house, is in her house in the middle of the night. She does have the very basic one. Do you run? Do you hide? Do you stay and try to fight? Tell us a little bit more about her. Like, what do we need to know about her to understand why she makes the choice she does?

SIERRA: I think she is about as far from an action hero as you can get in many ways. She knows immediately that fighting in any sort of physical way - she's going to lose. That is off the table. And the story takes place during a blizzard. And the idea of being able to somehow escape out of the house when, you know, you have small children and there's snow on the ground - very difficult. And I think one thing that she's dismayed in herself is that her first reaction is kind of to freeze. And how you deal with your own sort of physical response to fear is, I think, a really interesting thing and kind of different in every different emergency situation. So, yeah, she has to figure out how to hide because that's really the only option left to her.

KELLY: And tell us where she hides.

SIERRA: So the setting of the house is based on my own 300-year-old home here in New England. And like a lot of antique homes, actually - and there are a lot of them in New England - there are secret spaces in the house. We certainly have some in ours. And we also have, just like the house in the novel, a secret room behind the fireplace.

KELLY: Wow.

SIERRA: And so she takes refuge in that secret room, which, you know, is not exactly a hospitable place.

KELLY: It's tiny. It's dusty. It's cramped.

SIERRA: Yeah.

KELLY: It's - yeah.

SIERRA: Right. It is. But in a way, her smallness and the size of her children becomes a strength in that way, kind of paradoxically. You know, she can't fight, but she is certainly able to hide a little easier than she might be if she were larger.

KELLY: And you said this is - you have a room like this in your own house in New England.

SIERRA: Yes. Yes, we do. We do. There's all kinds of really interesting and fun, you know, little secret spaces. We have sort of hidey holes under floorboards and the like. And when we were looking at houses, I know we're not alone in this because we saw other old homes with very similar things and all kinds of theories about the secret room. And I kind of poke at that a little bit in the book as well and the way that people are kind of fascinated by that and just sort of love spinning stories around it.

KELLY: And is that part of what inspired this whole story - is you looking at your own secret room in your own house and thinking, why would you go in there? Like, why would you built it? What would you use it for?

SIERRA: Oh, absolutely. You know, much like the husband and wife and the novel, my husband and I cleaned out that space and kind of theorizing - and everyone we've had work in the house has their own theory. You know, the family we bought the home from - the kids were convinced it was haunted. These old spaces kind of accumulate theories and legends. And it's really interesting because you'll never know the truth for sure or how it was used in the past, right? And I think that's just a really sort of fun and interesting thing about old homes and secret spaces.

KELLY: While we're on the subject of the house, it is a very old, centuries-old house in New England in the novel. It's almost a character in its own right. It's got so much personality, and it's making all these noises that are informing the action. Tell us a little more about that.

SIERRA: Sure. I think any parent of small children becomes very aware of every little creak and echo in their house because if you're putting, you know, a baby down to sleep, you're in big trouble if that door creaks and wakes them up.

KELLY: Oh, yeah.

SIERRA: And certainly in our house, I learned where to walk, where not to, what squeaks, what doesn't. And I wrote the novel, much of it, during COVID lockdowns. And it was at this time where, obviously, our homes were a refuge but also extremely confining. And it got me thinking a lot about sort of the traditional role of home for women as sort of the sphere but also, again, confining and how I really wanted to sort of turn that sort of knowledge of this creaky house into an asset for her, right? She knows this space. She knows where this man is in the house because she can hear him. She knows that noise of that floorboard, the creak of that wardrobe, all those sort of characteristic things that you learn as a parent and just living in a place.

KELLY: Have you ever had occasion to use your secret room?

SIERRA: No, we have not. We have not. And I hope I never need to (laughter) for...

KELLY: Me, too.

SIERRA: ...This reason, for sure.

KELLY: Tracy Sierra. Thank you.

SIERRA: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Her debut novel is titled "Nightwatching."

(SOUNDBITE OF DORIAN CONCEPT'S "HIDE (CS01 VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.