Meet Jack Henseleit.
JACK HENSELEIT was born on a winter evening in 1991, just after the stroke of midnight. When the weather is dark and stormy, he writes fairy tales – real fairy tales, where witches and goblins play tricks on unwary girls and boys. Not all of the tales have happy endings.
Jack’s debut horror series for middle-grade readers, titled The Witching Hours, was first launched in Australia in 2017, with a US edition of book one (The Vampire Knife) releasing in September 2018, and with a US edition of book two (The Troll Heart) set to follow in 2019. When Jack isn’t writing scary stories, he can be found exploring forests, playing board games, or wrestling with his cat, Teddy, all in (and around) Ballarat, Australia.
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Hi Jack! Thanks for joining us today. Tell us a little about yourself.
Hello Rae, and hello blog readers! My name is Jack, and I write scary stories for children. Prior to writing my first book, I studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne for five years, where I shivered my way through countless cold, rainy nights. Luckily for me, the constant bad weather was very inspiring, and it was those rainstorms, coupled with my rediscovered love of the Brothers Grimm, that eventually motivated me to plot out my first novel. Melbourne may not be a perfect match for the wilds of Transylvania, but writers are always told to write what they know, and I’m certainly very familiar with being caught in the elements!
An author. A vampire. Tell us about your writing life and how your stories come to life.
My writing life changes enormously depending on where I am in the writing process. The best days are when I’m planning out a new idea, allowing my brain to entertain itself as it fleshes out the story, chasing inspiration through books, movies, Wikipedia articles, YouTube videos, and whatever else I can find to keep the story going. The more difficult days come when the story actually needs to be written down, and I have to spend hours sitting at my computer, trying to choose the words that will make a reader see the same mental pictures that I do. Those days are fun as well, but they’re not quite as exciting as the brainstorms that came before.
In the specific case of The Vampire Knife, I spent the months leading up to the writing phase reading The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and watching a whole bunch of vampire films, while also learning as much as I could about the Romanian countryside. Then, when my notebook was bursting with ideas, I began to write 1,000 words of the story every night, and I kept on writing until I reached the ending. The most exciting days during that writing period were when a new spooky scene would spring up out of nowhere, and suddenly my characters would be running away screaming from a peril that not even I had expected. These unexpected interludes can be incredibly worthwhile – although in some of the later books, some of those surprise scenes have been at risk of derailing the plot entirely!
How would you describe horror (description and expectations) in terms of a middle grade understanding rather than adult?
This is a good question! People often look confused when I tell them I write horror stories for kids, but for the most part, I think horror stories can provide a valuable release for both age groups. For me, horror exists at the intersection between danger and curiosity, which are concepts that are universally understood: both adults and children understand the wisdom of avoiding a dangerous situation, because neither party wants to come to harm, but at the same time, both audiences can remain deeply curious about what might have happened if they’d made that riskier decision. What would have happened if they’d crept outside that night? What would have happened if they’d walked past that crocodile? And so we send our fictional heroes into those situations instead, and naturally, bad things happen – but the audience’s good decision making is validated, and their curiosity is finally sated.
Interestingly, if we look at the horror stories being told a hundred years ago, I don’t think there was much distinction between adult and middle-grade horror at all: a child in 2018 is unlikely to be terribly scared by any of the old Universal horror films, like Dracula (1931), or The Mummy (1932), or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). But then slasher films became a thing, and all of a sudden horror fiction for adults became bloody, and visceral, and unrelenting – and that’s the shift that children’s horror cannot, and will not, ever make. Children’s horror is allowed to be scary, but the story needs to be threaded through with hope and moments of respite, so that the child reader can maintain a level of control over the experience. Bad things can happen, but the (mostly) happy ending always needs to be waiting around the corner!
How does the writing – editing – publishing process of your current novels differ from your first, The Vampire Knife?
Last month I finished writing the fourth book in The Witching Hours series, and regretfully, the experience of writing book four was a lot more difficult than writing book one. When I wrote The Vampire Knife, there were no expectations whatsoever: nobody knew I was writing a book, and so I felt a great freedom to write whatever I wanted, taking the story in whichever crazy direction would amuse me the most. Now, three years later, I’m lucky enough to have a real audience, and a team of real (and brilliant) publishers supporting my series – and I’m terrified of letting them down! I really want each new book to be even spookier and more exciting than the ones that came before it, and as a result I’m constantly second-guessing myself, shifting the scenes around to try and make them as entertaining as they can be. I’m still having a tremendous amount of fun, but it’s fair to say that the learning curve for writing sequels was more challenging than I expected. (But also, now that the story is done and dusted, I feel confident in saying that book four is the scariest story yet!)
Write a one sentence fairy tale – goblins and all!
“The goblins doused their torches as they snuck into the treasure cave, slipping through the shadows; but the dragon saw them coming by the greed glinting in their eyes, and he waited for them in the dark, gobbling them up one by one.”
“For only the bravest readers.” Why do you think it is important to have horror reads available for younger readers?
As well as providing a safe way for child readers to satisfy their morbid curiosities, I think horror stories are always terrifically entertaining – and in an age where books are having to compete with YouTube and iPads to gain a child’s attention, I think it’s great for booksellers and librarians to have an easy selling point to try and lure in a reluctant reader. “This one has a vampire in it” is a good hook at any age!
Tell us a little bit about your series, The Witching Hours. Do you have a favourite book, character, scene or all three?
The Witching Hours series follows heroic siblings Anna and Max as they travel around the world, encountering a whole menagerie of terrifying magical creatures in each new country they visit. The books are written according to modern sensibilities – the cliffhangers come thick and fast – but at the same time, the core stories are heavily inspired by traditional fairy tales, and so aim to encapsulate a very old-school approach to magic and adventure. It’s also a writing philosophy of mine that children shouldn’t expect to battle with monsters and come away unscathed, and so readers should be warned that Anna and Max may not escape their first adventure entirely intact…
In terms of having a favourite book, character, or scene, I always tend to be most in love with whichever piece of writing I’ve been working on the most recently! When I’ve just finished writing a scene with Anna, I’m always enamoured with her courage, and her kindness, and her boundless curiosity; but then I’ll write a scene with Max, and be impressed with his good sense, and his humour, and the lighter touch that he brings to proceedings. Having said that, I’ll always be beholden to the fifth chapter of The Vampire Knife (titled, appropriately enough, “The Witching Hour”) which is the first scene I ever wrote for the story, back before I even knew I was going to write a novel. It’s a lovely little horror story in its own right, and provided me with a solid foundation on which to construct my first book – and, indeed, my first series.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers today?
I’ve got nothing else to share, except to thank your readers for giving this article a click! If anything I’ve said here has sparked your curiosity, I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of The Vampire Knife, to see what terrors lie within. Happy Halloween, and happy witching!