If crossing paths with a woman roaming the streets in Montclair Village and surrounding neighborhoods who gazes intently at the area’s diverse architecture — or that same woman is observed in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve calling out, “Elvis, come here boy!”— do not be alarmed. It is most likely Montclair resident and novelist Stacy Stokes, plotting her next young adult thriller and retrieving the family dog in what has become her favorite East Bay regional park.
After years of commuting from San Francisco to her day job as a marketing professional at Oakland-based Clorox Co., Stokes says the move to Montclair was a time-saver with unexpected benefits.
“I love walking around Montclair and looking at old homes. The trees and greenery make it easy to forget you’re near a big urban city. I also love listening to audio books. Last year, my count was north of 80. It goes along with walking, having a good story between my ears.”
Stokes’ debut young adult novel, “Remember Me Gone” (Viking Press), places an adventure story into readers’ hands that was composed in part while wandering Montclair streets. A 6:30 pm March 22 virtual launch at A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair Village (ggpbooks.com/event/RememberMeGone) has Stokes paired in conversation with young adult fiction writer Ginny Myers Sain.
“Even when I lived in San Francisco, I attended book launch events in Oakland. I have a critique group, and all of them live in the East Bay. They introduced me to A Great Good Place for Books. I went to a great event there with three tremendous young adult authors that was the last event I attended before the pandemic shutdown. There was warmth and a love of stories. Squeezed in by books, elbow-to-elbow with others, you just feel the coziness. The place makes me feel close to the words.”
Stokes has been “close to words” from childhood. Her mother is a “huge book lover” who, upon learning about 16 months ago that Stokes was pregnant, pulled out stacks of picture books she’d been saving.
“She even once read and recorded them,” Stokes recalls. “Unfortunately, when I was a teenager and a brat, I took those tapes and recorded over them.”
Stokes says her mother always has a physical, tactile book in her purse and pulls it out while waiting in lines at grocery stores.
“She used to leave Stephen King books around the house, and I’d sneakily read them when I was way too young for the content.”
Stokes grew up in Carrollton, Texas, once a tiny town with a dirt road and no restaurants that became a sprawling outside Dallas after multiple highways with exits to the area were built. She holds a marketing degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. While living for a time in Chicago, she spreads her wings as an improv comedian.
“With improv, you’re in a team of people, making up the story as you go. I started because I wanted to make friends after I moved to Chicago. I remember thinking it was ridiculous, and then finding it so much fun. My favorite was long form because if you’re sitting in the audience, it looks like there’s no structure.
“But actually, when you study it, you anchor to a character and figure out what makes that person tick. Your team members do the same thing. What you create is how these characters interact. The audience just melts into the made-in-the-moment story.”
It turns out that it was great practice for writing fiction.
“My sweet spot are books grounded in the real world, but with magic, fantasy, the gamut,” Stokes says. “I like to have one character who has a sense of humor, a bit of snark. When writing something serious, the juxtaposition of tension building (interrupted by) the release of something funny lets the pressure out. Then you can start winding it up again.”
“Remember Me Gone” cranks up the suspense with Lucy Miller, the book’s 16-year-old protagonist whose family has for generations run a business of erasing people’s memories at Memory House in small-town Tumble Tree, Texas. People arrive from across the country seeking solace and escape from tragedy-filled, haunting memories and emotions.
As Lucy receives training from her father and prepares to join the operation, events unfold that expose darker, grim consequences of the practice and the town’s mayor uses blackmail and lethal threats to pull Lucy’s father and other townsfolk along a trail of corruption and exploitation.
Stokes says among other lessons learned about writing that she will never forget is that her job isn’t to put a character in a tree and then get the character down.
“My job is to put a character in a tree, throw rocks, set the tree on fire, give them something to put out the fire that doesn’t work, then have the character solve the problem. It makes a more interesting story.”
Stokes began writing the novel in 2017 and sold it to Viking Press in early 2020. She wrote linearly from start to end, working on a laptop in silence or with earphones and classical music to wipe out any outside noises. Finding young characters’ voices, she says, is influenced by thrillers she read as a teen, especially books written by Christopher Pike and RL Stein, her two favorite authors at that time.
“The first draft was garbage,” she says. “When it’s done, you think, ‘Who isn’t gonna love this?’ Then you see that first draft needs a lot of revision, and you realize you’ve only just started.”
Even so, Stokes holds precious the opportunity to explore the book’s major themes — the parental instinct to protect, even over-protect, their children; how memories erased are a missed opportunity for learning and growth; and small towns as places that foster isolation and secret-keeping.
Stokes’ next book carries the working title, “The Darkness Rises.” Slated for release in 2023, the main character is a girl who rescues people from danger after seeing black clouds over their heads. After the girl’s gift leads to an unexpected tragedy, she must confront whether or not the people she saves will go on to endanger others and if an alternative narrative could lead to unimaginable loss.
The discussion at A Great Good Place for Books will be webcast on Zoom at us02web.zoom.us/j/86577564825 and on Facebook Live at facebook.com/ggpbooks/live.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.