Jo Treggiari was born in London, England, and raised in Canada. She spent many years in Oakland, California and New York, where she trained as a boxer, wrote for a punk magazine, and owned a gangster rap/indie rock record label. Her novels for teens include Ashes, Ashes, a multiple award nominee and bestseller, a novella Love You Like Suicide, a psych-thriller Blood Will Out, and her most recent book The Grey Sisters which was a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist and an Arthur Ellis Award finalist. She lives with her two children in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia where she co-owns a curated, spirited, independent bookstore Lexicon Books.
Tell me about your latest YA novel The Grey Sisters. What’s it about?
The Grey Sisters follows three teen girls as they travel to the site of the mountain-side plane crash that killed their siblings. D and Spider are hoping for closure, and Min comes along for support. Meanwhile, Ariel, a member of an isolated survivalist cult who lives on the mountain, experiences a deadly attack that sends her looking for help from the outside. When the girls meet in a chance encounter, none of them are prepared for the way their very different worlds collide. I was asked to sum up the plot in one sentence recently and I said it was Little Women meets Deliverance.
You seem to be unique among YA authors in that your books are scary and this seems unusual to me. What is it about these genres (YA, thrillers) that attracts you?
The exciting thing about writing for teens is that you can delve into experiences that most humans face—love, death, loss, grief, fear to name a few—but for a teenager, they are happening for the first time and there’s a tremendous amount of emotion and growth attached to that. A thriller lets me ramp up all those feelings, heighten twists of the plot, and build my characters by testing them. Writing page-turners comes naturally to me but I spend a lot of time fleshing out my characters so that readers can still relate to them in some way even though most of us will live our lives serial-killer and cult free.
Back when you were a teen reading YA books, what did you read?
I was a voracious reader so I read everything. All the books in the house which included all of my parents’ books too. Both of them are teachers, and my father is also a librarian. I read and enjoyed classic literature including the myths, Arthurian legends, fairytales, but also modern horror like Stephen King and Clive Barker, and I was a huge fan of Tolkien, Charles de Lint and Ursula K. Leguin. My favourite genre was adventure stories but back then there weren’t many that featured female or diverse heroes so that’s definitely become a theme in my books.
Congratulations on the nomination of The Grey Sisters for an Arthur Ellis Award. What was your reaction upon hearing? Why are awards (and award nominations) important for writers?
Thank you! I was thrilled and surprised. The great thing about awards and nominations is that they increase the visibility of your work. And they level the playing field especially here in Canada. Lesser-known authors and smaller publishers have as good a chance as the bigger houses and best-sellers. There’s often a cash prize as well and that’s certainly appreciated by most authors I know!
How did you end up in Lunenburg? Does Lunenburg or the south shore end up in your fiction?
Like so many others, I came on a trip, fell in love with the beauty of Nova Scotia, and on a whim decided to move here. I grew up in Ottawa, but lived in the States for 30 years before making my way back to Canada. Nova Scotia definitely informs my plot ideas and inspires me but since I write about horrible things, I’ve been reluctant to situate my books here geographically. That being said, I’ve read a lot of local non-fiction that has flavored my stories and I’ve begun a first-draft for a YA mystery that will be set here in my hometown.
Not only are you a writer but a bookstore owner too. Can you tell me about Lexicon Books and how it came to be? Is Lexicon still operational right now?
One of my many past jobs was selling books in upstate New York at The Golden Notebook which has been in business now for over 40 years. It’s a wonderful magical place like so many bookstores are and it’s located in a town very like Lunenburg—an arts and culture hub, a tourist destination, a summer spot, but with a year-round community of avid readers. Owning a bookstore was always a dream of mine but I fast-forwarded it when I became a single mother. There weren’t many jobs available to me that would forgive snow days, sick days, and shorter hours due to school pick-ups. I knew fellow moms Anne-Marie and Alice and it just seemed to come together naturally. We are closed temporarily due to Covid-19 but we have plans to open again as soon as it is safe for everyone.
You wrote about the plague in your acclaimed book Ashes, Ashes. As we live through this pandemic, how does the experience feel like fiction?
When I wrote Ashes, Ashes back in 2010 my children were young and I was imagining the worst thing that could happen to their world. I wanted to explore the aftermath of something so cataclysmic and life-altering and through it write about bravery, strength and our shared humanity. Would we pull together? Would some people fight to preserve how things had been, or put their faith into science and technology, while others built new communities and went back to the old way of living–growing food, and reconnecting with the earth? It does seem prescient at the moment and recent tragedies have been almost unbearable but I am heartened by how people look after each other, check in with each other, and how kindness and compassion can overcome anything.
Writers are generally used to being solitary to work — has the State of Emergency changed things for you? Are you able to write?
I’m used to and enjoy the isolation of working alone on my books but I also love interacting with people—one of the reasons that working at the bookstore is so fulfilling- so it’s been hard only seeing my friends and neighbors at a distance. Most of my family lives in Europe and that has certainly been a sadness for me. I’m lucky that my kids have been with me full-time although we had to go through a period of adjustment getting the younger one settled with home schooling. My eldest already studies from home. If I had not finished a first draft of a new book in March, I’m not sure if the current situation would have lent itself to a new project but fortunately I am editing and I find it easy to immerse myself in that process. Writing has always been a cathartic activity for me so there’s a lot of comfort in that as well.
What are some of the positives you are experiencing?
I could say that I am embracing the slower pace of life at the moment but to be honest my daily life hasn’t changed that much.Normally the bookstore would be on winter hours still, and this is the time of year when I try to write a new book so I was already in hibernation mode. Being surrounded by nature has always mattered a lot to me and to my well-being and it’s a big reason why I moved here. I can still get out for long hikes with dogs and kids. My study overlooks the harbour and the ocean.I’m whipping my vegetable garden into shape. I have a houseful of books. I feel very grateful.
What are three great books you’d recommend to folks who are at home and need a good read?
In general fiction I just read and loved Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell. In Middle-Grade and YA, I’d say Coo by Kaela Noel, Bloom by Kenneth Oppel and Keep This To Yourself by Tom Ryan.
What are you working on right now?
I’m doing edits on a new teen thriller called Heartbreak Homes which will hopefully come out next year. And in another compartment of my brain, I am working on a first draft of a mystery thriller The Moontown Murder Squad set in Lunenburg.