The writer talks haunted houses, queer YA romance, and being inspired by daydreams.
Born and raised in the Midwest, queer trans author Alex Crespo set his debut YA novel, Saint Juniper’s Folly, in a spooky forest inspired by his own Ohio childhood. Now living in Chicago with his black cat, Hex, Crespo spends his time writing and making art — when he’s not obsessing about “Mothman,” that is.
Can you tell me about your inspiration for the book?
Saint Juniper’s Folly started off as a daydream about what would happen if someone walked into a house and then couldn’t walk back out. As I refined the story and the characters, I pulled from my own experiences as a queer teen growing up in a tight-knit and often judgmental community. The book quickly expanded to encompass this idea that a lot of teens feel trapped and suffocated, and I wanted to explore how they could come out the other side of that in one piece.
What inspired the book’s setting?
Saint Juniper’s Folly was fully inspired by [Ohio’s] Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The elementary school I went to as a kid was in the valley, so every time I zoned out in class, I was looking out at the forest, thinking about monsters and ghosts hiding in the wilderness. The towns of Saint Juniper and Wolf’s Head are a mix of my hometown and spots in New England I explored when I moved east for college.
Are you a fan of haunted houses in real life? Do you have a favorite haunted-house novel?
I’m actually a huge scaredy-cat, so I only like to get spooked through fiction! Mexican Gothic is a recent favorite, but I also love classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre that play with the haunted-house concept in unexpected ways.
I loved the progressive reveal at the center of the mystery (and the sleuthing that gets us there) in Saint Juniper’s Folly. Was there anything you cut from earlier drafts that didn’t quite feel essential?
The mystery was one of the pieces that changed the most during revisions. I wanted to make sure the breakthrough realizations were coming at a steady pace and felt rewarding for the reader, so I ended up streamlining it a lot and getting rid of parts where [the characters’] research took unnecessary turns or hit dead ends.
I’m a big fan of tarot and astrology. I know you mention Theo’s sign in the book, but I’m curious about the other protagonists, Jaime and Taylor!
Oh, for sure! I actually use astrology in the early stages of drafting to help me map out character traits and compatibility between love interests. Theo is a Virgo, which is mentioned briefly in the book. He embodies the high-strung, perfectionist stereotype a lot of people associate with Virgos, but he’s also really thoughtful and introspective. Jaime is a Scorpio through and through, tough and intense on the outside but pensive and romantic on the inside. And Taylor is a Taurus, stubborn to a fault but also so smart and protective of the people she loves.
One thing that makes teen plots work is that parents are largely absent from the action. Obviously, Jaime, Theo, and Taylor have very different situations. Did any part of you want to include more of their families?
In an earlier version of the book, the marital troubles between Theo’s parents did come to a head on the page, and there were more flashbacks and memories involving Taylor’s mom. I ended up pushing them to the background of the story a bit because I liked the idea that the parents are haunting the narrative in a way, including the ones that are alive. They all have a clear impact on the main trio, but the attention is focused on the kids to bring a more claustrophobic feel to the story.
You do spooky and swoony beautifully. Do you have any interest in writing pure romance without the haunts?
Definitely! I read a ton of romance novels and love writing fluff as much as I love writing spooky angst, so I’m really excited that my next book is a romcom where I get to focus on that more. I do love that speculative fiction gives me the creative wiggle room to explore themes through magic and metaphor, so in a perfect world, I’d get to keep jumping back and forth between genres as my career progresses.
What’s next for you? Will we see more of Jaime, Theo, and Taylor?
My next book, Queerceañera, is a queer YA romance coming from HarperTeen in summer 2024. It follows a teen who’s suddenly thrown into a whirlwind of telenovela-level drama when he finds himself fake-dating his childhood crush and newly minted escort to his “queerceañera.” It’s fluffy and heartfelt and touches on a lot of topics around coming out that I’m excited to explore. I also have another queer paranormal YA [novel] coming from Peachtree Teen in 2025. I’ve lovingly dubbed it the “sapphic cryptid book,” in which four teens track down a monster that’s feeding off secrets before their own hidden truths are exposed to their coastal Oregon town. It is set in the same universe as Saint Juniper’s Folly, and I don’t think there’ll be any cameos from the original trio, but never say never!
[Editor’s note: Read the Independent’s review of Saint Juniper’s Folly here.]
Nick Havey is a senior manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all (but particularly queer) fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.