Author Events, Halloween

Looking for a thrilling read? Meet Pittsburgh author Zoje Stage

Stage’s novel “Wonderland” is one of the top horror novels for 2020 on Goodreads

Local author Zoje Stage didn’t intentionally set out to become a horror author, but here we are, two horror novels later.

“I always wrote stories that had something quite dark in them and maybe something kind of odd in them,” Stage said. “I like to explore opposites. You can’t explore anything that’s light unless you explore something that’s dark, and you can’t explore good unless you explore evil.”

Stage has become a respected local author, based in Squirrel Hill. Her latest book, “Wonderland,” released in June to widespread acclaim. She also authored “Baby Teeth” from 2018.

“Wonderland” follows Orla, a retired ballerina who moves with her husband and two young children to a secluded house in the woods. Her husband Shaw decides to shift the bulk of the parenting duties to Orla so he can embark on his passion: nature-inspired painting. Before long, the woods start to supernaturally disturb the family in increasingly horrific ways.

Stage’s publicist’s sent me a copy of the book, and I’ve been loving it. Stage writes with remarkably smooth, easy-to-read and arresting prose. Much of the book is rooted in compelling family drama that’s challenged by the more conventional injections of horror into the book. If you’re looking for some cool, local literature to put you in the Halloween mood, you can’t go wrong with it.

Because of the Halloween season, I decided to chat with Stage on Zoom about her and her work. I also picked her brain about her Halloween plans and her favorite bookstores.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q&A with Zoje Stage

Very Local Pittsburgh: How did you come up with the idea for “Wonderland?”

Zoje Stage: I have a background in film, so some of my ideas still start in a film-ish sort of way, where it might start with imagery. And, back when I was a filmmaker, I really had this dream of making a film that took place entirely in snow, because I thought snow was so cinematic. And when I started exploring novels I could do that would take place in snow, initially I was researching Antarctica. But all of the people who live in Antarctica are super specific with very specific jobs. And I was like, I want to have a little more wiggle room than that. I just started thinking, how cool it would be if I could have all sorts of different kinds of winter weather, and when I realized that wasn’t realistic, I was like, okay, I could do something that’s not realistic. And then it really opened up the possibilities.

So I just started with this idea: What if a place appeared to be haunted by the weather? And a city family moved there? A family that really knows nothing about living in nature or living in the country, and so they aren’t quite sure how to interpret it, so initially they might not understand that it’s not normal. It would take them some time to get a hang of what’s happening and get a grasp on what the situation is.

That was the origins. I wanted to explore that and explore this intersection between what’s beautiful and what’s dangerous, because that’s very much something that Orla encounters because she’s not quite sure how to interpret what’s going on.

VLP: How do you use the family drama in the book in a way that connects to the horror in the book?

Stage: At the base of any story are characters. It’s ultimately almost always going to be about characters. I very much want to write characters who feel real to me, that they’re living through me and I’m living through them, and that I find something interesting about them and the dynamics of the relationships and their lives. To me, that’s all very interesting, and, no matter how strange or odd a story might be that I write, I want to explore the real human aspect of it. How would real people behave in this situation?

That was one of the main things I really did want to get across with “Wonderland.” Orla does not know that she’s in a horror novel. So she’s experiencing all of these odd things from her very normal perspective of the world. I like that challenge. What if someone was experiencing something odd for the first time? What would their process be to be able to accept what was happening around them? Because I don’t think most of us would go immediately to, “Oh, it’s supernatural.” I think we would try to rationalize it.

VLP: Do you think you’ll always write horror?

Stage: I’m not sure. I could definitely see myself branching out, but I think my stories would always have some element that was kind of dark or kind of twisty or kind of weird. I don’t know. It’s an interesting possibility, because as a creative person, you definitely want to be able to continue exploring and challenging yourself and experimenting, but I can’t imagine myself moving terribly far away from dark and suspenseful.

VLP: Have you been going to any bookstores in quarantine, and what are some of your favorites?

Stage: I’ve been buying mostly online. I’ve been really wanting to be supportive of my local, independent bookstores. A few weeks ago, I was able to go into Classic Lines. That’s my local independent bookstore in Squirrel Hill. It was so nice to be back in a bookstore.

Every month, I try to swap. I’ve been buying from Riverstone Books [located in McCandless] and from Mystery Lovers Bookshop [located in Oakmont]. And those are both book stores I really love. I’ve done author events with both of them.

VLP: What are your Halloween plans?

Stage: I’ve lived in apartments for decades, and I bought a house this past winter. I moved into my house the day Pennsylvania went into quarantine. That was exciting. So my hope is, I would love to have trick-or-treaters, and I would love to hand out candy, but I don’t know if Halloween is going to be canceled! That’s what I would like to do.

Upcoming (virtual) events with Zoje Stage

Stage will also be kept busy this Halloween season by participating in some free, virtual panel discussions! Here are the details for the two events she has coming up:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 27, 7 p.m. Women in Horror Panel. Moderated by Mallory O’Meara. Register by clicking here
  • Wednesday, Oct. 28 7 p.m. Horror Showcase Panel. Moderated by Danielle Trussoni. Register by clicking here

Zoje Stage

Follow Zoje Stage:

You can find Zoje’s books on Bookshop.org here.

Here are a few more Pittsburgh authors to put on your radar

Sarah Menkedick

Damon Young

Jenna McGuiggan

Kristofer Collins

Kristofer Collins

You can find even more local authors here. If you are looking for more authors and (virtual) events, check out Littsburgh, a website all about Pittsburgh’s literary community.